PhD grad chews on global food issues

June 06, 2016

By Diane Luckow

In Stockholm, Sweden, SFU PhD graduate Brent Loken is settling into his new job as science liaison officer for EAT, an Oslo-based consortium striving to transform the global food system to sustainably feed more than nine billion people by 2050.

On June 7, instead of crossing the SFU convocation dais to receive his degree parchment, Loken will be preparing to rub shoulders with some of the world’s top climate scientists and business leaders at the international EAT Forum in mid-June.

At age 45, Loken has already switched careers several times. A former science teacher and international school principal, he most recently spent six years in Borneo where he established and ran Integrated Conservation (ICON). The non-profit organization worked to help some of Borneo’s indigenous people preserve the Wehea rainforest.

In the midst of that work, he enrolled in the SFU Faculty of Environment’s resource and environmental management PhD program, and won both a Trudeau Scholarship and a Vanier Scholarship, together worth $330,000 over three years. The scholarships helped fund his thesis project, which examined various social and ecological factors involved in protecting some of the most endangered species on the planet. Part of that work entailed a biodiversity study to investigate the variety and abundance of animals living in the Wehea rainforest. Unexpectedly, camera traps captured the discovery of a lifetime—photos of the critically endangered Miller’s Grizzled Langur, which had never been documented in the Wehea rainforest and was thought to be extinct. His discovery made headlines worldwide.

But as Loken wrote the final chapter of his thesis, he questioned whether community-based conservation in Borneo is the best and most efficient means of protecting the forest and its nearly extinct species.

“I now believe that actually working within the larger policy arena is where we can have the most impact,” he says, noting that it’s imperative to work with the multi-national corporations that are involved in these areas.

He sees his new role with EAT as the perfect segue to his PhD work. He’ll be working to connect powerful multi-national corporations with governmental and academic communities, and encouraging them to work together to transform the global food system.

“It’s really focusing on the same issues as in Borneo, but rather than at the local level, at the global level.”

He says his SFU experience is “absolutely key” to his new role. The REM program’s focus on interdisciplinarity has given him the ability to discuss issues in depth from a variety of viewpoints. As well, the program connected him with the Stockholm Resilience Centre and its global academic research group. Through those connections, he became a member of the Resilience Alliance of Young Scholars, which in turn led to his new role with EAT.

“This job is a perfect example of what you can do with an interdisciplinary degree—try to solve the huge issues around feeding nine-and-a-half billion people on the planet a healthy and sustainable diet.

See related stories:

Orangutans take the logging road

'Extinct' monkey lives!

SFU students put Vanier scholarships to work

SFU pair win Trudeau scholarships


Brent Loken checks on wildlife photos captured from a camera trap in the Wehea rainforest in Borneo, where he was conducting his PhD research. Photos of the Miller’s Grizzled Langur, thought to be extinct, made headlines worldwide.