Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Vivienne Hay CC’14. The Yale Sustainable Food Program’s Global Food Fellowship funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.
My research into agriculture in Peru began at an end point of the Peruvian food chain: with two days in Lima. As in most large cities, food consumption was much more prominent than food production. The most visible food outlets were the fast food restaurants. Fast food outlets in Lima were uncannily alike fast food stores in the U.S.: the same brands (KFC, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts); the same colorful awnings and brightly lit signs; the same English-language music; even the same prices, though the menu often made concessions to local cuisine.
Each corner also had a small puesto (small food stand) selling snacks. Although Peru exports hundreds of thousands of dollars of vegetables, grapes, avocados, mangoes and milk annually, none of these products were for sale. Instead, the puestos sold packets and packets of cookies, biscuits, chips and bottles and bottles of soda, juice and water.
The supermarkets were the least conspicuous of all the food outlets that I saw, but sold the highest volume of goods. Like the fast food outlets, the supermarkets were almost carbon copies of supermarkets in the U.S., down to the fake scent of bread being pumped through the store’s HVAC system to entice shoppers to buy more food.
Overall, Lima’s food outlets were remarkably similar to U.S. food outlets, perhaps a sign of how homogenous our global food system can be. After a few days in Lima, I was excited to travel to more remote areas of Peru and see how far Western habits have penetrated.
From Lima, I travelled to the Incan site of Machu Picchu and then on to Organica Torres, the first farm where I worked. Located in a 100-person village in the middle of the Andes, the farm was in a precarious location. A single-track road completed in 2009 linked them to the town of Abancay, which was over 30 miles away but the only accessible market for their goods. The landscape also made farming challenging. In contrast to the precise terracing I saw at the five-hundred year old site of Machu Picchu, present-day fields were left sloping, a situation which contributes to erosion, diminishes soil fertility and can reduce the efficiency of irrigation.
The challenging conditions were reflected in the family’s food consumption. Though they produced food, they ate very little of it. Almost all the milk from their cows was used to make cheese for sale (the six-month-old calf only gets whey). Twelve chickens produced eggs, but the ones reserved for family consumption were stretched thin: one egg to thicken a soup for eight people or one boiled egg each on Sundays. All of the quinoa they produced was sold for cash, perhaps because international demand for local quinoa has tripled or quadrupled the price of quinoa in Peru, so it’s un-economical to eat it. Instead, the family used the cash from cheese, eggs and quinoa to purchase energy-dense but nutrient poor processed food such as noodles, white bread and crackers. For having just a single-track road that links them to town, they were surprisingly well-integrated into the market.
After Organica Torres, I moved to Winay Wayna, another farm in the Andes. Unlike Organica Torres, Winay Wayna was not located in a village. Rather, the family lived in a standalone house located a five or ten minute walk from the nearby hamlet of Ccorca. The Ramírez family was significantly better off (financially) than the family at Organica Torres, but I was surprised by how similar their production methods were. They had exactly the same traditional tools, few in number but very versatile. Each farm had a pico (pickaxe), a scythe and a shovel, which sufficed for almost all of the work; the community banded together to rent a tractor to the plow everyone’s land once a year.
The differences that indicated the family’s financial status appeared in the consumption rather than production side of food. They had a gas stove (rather than wood-burning one) and a refrigerator. However, they were limited by the lack of infrastructure in Peru: their house didn’t have piped gas or electricity. The stove ran off a gas canister but there was no electricity for the fridge, which they bought five years ago in the time between the government promising to electrify every house and the government explaining that they weren’t going to electrify the Ramírez family house because it was too isolated. In contrast to the versatile, sturdy and useful production tools, the fridge sat in the corner of the kitchen as an expensive, fragile and underutilized piece of equipment.
My final farm was in the Amazon rather than the Andes. The farmer, Maria, inherited the land from her parents but the soil was depleted from decades of improperly managed slash-and-burn agriculture. Adding fertilizer to the soil was ineffective, since the large volume of rain ensured that nutrients were rapidly washed away. Rather, she used an innovative permaculture technique to add nutrients to the soil.
She explained that plants tend to do about as well as their neighbors. When plants are exceptionally successful (for example, a single plant in an otherwise sterile area or a tree that grows tall enough to breaks through the forest canopy layer), it’s often a sign that they’ve had help. Specifically, successful plants tend to co-exist with a symbiotic community of bacteria and fungi. These symbiotes add nutrients to the soil in exchange for sugars from the plant.
One of our most interesting projects was cultivating this symbiotic soil fungus. We added the fungus, which we collected near an exceptionally tall tree, to a growth medium (soil mixed with sugar solution). Once the fungus finished growing, we dissolved the mixture in water and sprayed it over the fields to inoculate them. Adding the fungus rather than adding fertilizer is better for the soil, better for the plants and better for Maria, because the fungus doesn’t get washed away, continually produces more nutrients and doesn’t cost anything.
From Lima to Machu Picchu, the Andes and the Amazon, Peru is a kaleidoscope of different experiences. The range of microclimates leads to a very diverse set of crops, and the relative absence of seed companies mean that farmers save their own varieties of seeds rather than planting standardized, store-bought ones. This genetic diversity combines with linguistic and cultural diversity to maintain a distinctive set of agricultural methods and practices within each region of the country.
The clash between “scientific” and traditional agriculture is only adding to this diversity, at least in the short-term. Though industrialized agriculture has been introduced to Peru, traditional farms still exist. Furthermore, agricultural extension programs are introducing innovative methods, such as using microorganisms rather than fertilizer to add nutrients to the soil.
However, the current situation is precarious. Export-oriented agriculture is encroaching on the land traditionally used for small-scale farming. In addition, many Peruvians are beginning to favor supermarkets over the traditional farmers’ markets, reducing the opportunities that small-scale farmers have to sell their products.
It was a privilege to be able to explore Peru as it enters this period of flux, and I am deeply grateful to the Global Food Fellowship and the team at the YSFP for enabling me to do so. The two months were filled with remarkable experiences. I was consistently surprised by how rich and diverse local knowledge can be, even (or perhaps especially) in less economically developed countries, a valuable lesson that I hope to carry with me to inform future work.
Vivienne Hay graduated from Yale in May of 2014 with a degree in Physics. After her Global Food Fellowship, she began her post graduate work at McKinsey & Company Inc. in New York.
A final, reflective post from Global Food Fellow, Austin Bryniarski CC ’16. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.
How we talk about problems with the food system — or anything, for that matter — often color the way in which we go about trying to solve them.
Food security is no exception. It’s an issue that’s hard to define, since there are a slew of issues that people who are food insecure face, and they can’t be reduced to one. One resident of a food desert might not own a car, and thus might not be able to physically get staple foods. Another might have the ability to walk into a grocery store or shop, but not the time or money to make the purchase. There are so many reasons that contribute to the outcome of low food access. Here’s how the USDA defines a food desert:
…urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Here, the solution seems simple. Build more grocery stores and make it easier to access food. But if you build it, will they come? Not necessarily. Researchers are finding that simply supplying food is not going to change eating behavior, and that more interventions must be taken not only increase the supply of healthier foods, but demand as well.
These are the ideas I was wrestling with this summer as I worked on a report about healthy corner store initiatives. Healthy corner store initiatives across the country seek in increase access to healthy foods by providing storeowners incentives to stock them. That might look like a grant check to pay for a new refrigeration system, or marketing materials to display in a corner store. Some cities have paired their programs with policies that would mandate the stocking of healthier foods by requiring that stores meet certain healthy food standards if they want a grocery license. Some cities have amended their zoning laws to make it easier for developers to include supermarkets and small grocery stores in areas near residential areas. Policymakers use land use law and municipal codes to their advantage when they want to create a healthier food environment.
How, then, can a program increase consumption of healthy foods in addition to increasing the supply? This is where an intervention becomes more involved; if a city changes the laws and policies to set the scene for a healthy corner store initiative, how well those laws are executed depends on program implementation. After all, what good is a zoning law that allows for sidewalk displays of fruits and vegetables if storeowners are ill equipped or unsure of how to market their wares in such a way? Storeowners can also increase the amount of produce people purchase through programs that match a customer’s entitlement dollars up to a certain amount so that he or she can spend twice the amount of money on healthy staple foods. Unfortunately, due to the most recent farm bill, it is harder for municipalities to equip businesses with Electronic Benefits Transfer machinery, but government agencies can serve as hubs for storeowners to gain information and resources when converting to stock healthier options.
Our original definition of “food desert,” then, is incomplete. Food deserts are measured by their proximity to supermarkets, which are an important part of the food access picture, but still make the metric with which the USDA is measuring food deserts incomplete. Craftier ways of supplying food – like improving the infrastructure of existing corner stores to serve a similar means – are becoming more and more prevalent alongside supermarkets in the way city planners are going about tackling problems of food access. What’s less clear is whether these interventions are having the intended public health effect of decreasing rates of obesity and related diseases, but the fact that programs like healthy corner store initiatives foster a more equitable distribution of healthy food is a promising first step. What we need now are better metrics and ways of talking about the problem of poor food access that can more carefully evaluate and account for whether the solutions are working.
Austin Bryniarski ’16 is a junior in Calhoun College majoring in Environmental Studies. This year he’s spearheading a joint position between the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and is working with Yale Law students to found a society for food law at Yale.
Katie Holsinger is YSFP’s Seed to Salad Program Coordinator.
Five weeks ago, second graders from Worthington Hooker Elementary School visited the Yale Farm. It was a warm day that felt more like the middle of summer than the beginning of fall–a great day for farming. As soon as the students arrived, they became farmers, pulling on imaginary farmer boots, gloves, and a hat, and going by “Farmer Emma,” “Farmer Colby,” and “Farmer Lisa.” I introduced myself as “Farmer Katie” and helped the students plant lettuce and radish seeds. When the students visited the farm again just two weeks later, their seeds were already sprouting. Today, the sprouts have grown into something resembling the food they are to be and in two weeks from now, the students will harvest their crop.
Radishes planted by New Haven second graders through YSFP’s Seed to Salad program.
In the Seed to Salad Program, students experience the life of a plant from a seed to a sprout to a mature vegetable to food on their plates. Weekly visits to the farm culminate in a harvest which is used to make a salad grown by the students themselves. For seven weeks leading up to the harvest, they learn about plant anatomy, seeds cycles, composting, nutrition, and life on the farm. Visiting the chicken coop is a favorite, where all the chickens usually get named and renamed and renamed again. Every student keeps a journal to record how their plants change each week and to draw and write about things they do on the farm: finding horse chestnut seeds and squash, working on the compost pile, hanging out in the greenhouse, climbing the string beans. The second grader “farmers” are full of curiosity and laughter and bring energy to the farm that stays with it all day.
Though this fall’s Seed to Salad program is soon coming to a close, in the spring we will welcome five other New Haven schools to the farm to plant, harvest, and learn about where food comes from. We can’t wait!
Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.
In the northeastern United States the leaves are beginning to change and farms are in the midst of a heavy harvest as we transition from summer to fall. Thousands of miles away, in Nepal, the monsoon rains have begun to subside and the Nepalese are celebrating Dasai, one of the nation’s biggest festivals. Dasai draws many Nepalis back to their home villages, and involves the celebration of strong communal ties. In a little over a month, many Americans will gather with their extended families and share a Thanksgiving meal. Although the contexts, histories and meanings of the celebrations differ, both involve celebration over a shared meal.
In the two months since I returned home from Nepal, I have been confronted with the challenge of considering how to internalize the lessons I learned over the summer. My time limited internship at the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) and experience living in Nepal is now closed. Yet, questions of how to feed people across the globe and equitably balance needs for sustainability with local demands for greater economic opportunity have stayed with me.
On my last day of work, I sat down for an hour with Dr. Bhishma Subedi M.F.S.’93 , ANSAB’s executive director. At one point he asked what about ANSAB’s approach stood out most. Without hesitation, I told him that the coherence between the organization’s seemingly disparate projects proved impressive. The staff in ANSAB’s various departments worked to implement ecosystem based commercial agriculture projects, promote sustainable enterprises in rural communities and build the forest management capacity of local forest users. Although some of these projects occurred in mountainous villages and others near urban centers, all cleaved closely to ANSAB’s mission. Dr. Subedi delightedly interrupted me. He told me that it is that coherence he strives for in ANSAB’s work. To ensure development projects truly empower residents and remain viable in the long term, Dr. Subedi aims to articulate how each potential project connects with ANSAB’s core values before taking it on.
In essence, Dr. Subedi taught me an important lesson: that to pursue sweeping change and larger visions requires constantly evaluating how day to day efforts fit in. This may sound simple, but terms like sustainability, sustainable agriculture, empowerment, and environmentally sensitive development have become buzzwords. They can take on many meanings and win many grants, but deploying the terms alone will not solve the global challenges in these sectors. By focusing steadfastly on identifying the relationships between specific projects and the broader goals of developing a sustainable, economically viable Nepal, ANSAB ensures its efforts embody its values.
The efforts of bright minds across the globe working to develop more sustainable systems of agriculture and economic opportunity can feel piecemeal, separated by language, national context and geography. Yet, Robert Rubin, the former Secretary of the Treasury, told The New York Times this summer “I have come to believe that climate change is the existential issue of our age.” Addressing this issue requires a myriad of diverse approaches, and much trial and error. The Dasai festival and the Thanksgiving holiday remind us that just as food is central to cultural experience across the world, the core set of values and the common humanity that drive efforts for sustainable agriculture are shared across contexts. Figuring out how to identify solutions based on these values and how to implement them is the task that confronts us all.
Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB was funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.
Dirty hands and happy workers over at the #Farm today! The #tomato #harvest is over & the vines are out!
Hi, Margaret here. Last week, Shizue and I inaugurated a year of value-added product work by making a batch of lacto-fermented chard pickles. Neither of us had ever pickled chard before, but it was a surprisingly easy process. We approached the project with a spirit of experimentation, trying different things and devising our strategy as we went along.
First we prepped the jars with various spices, peppers, and herbs. Both because we had a motley assortment of differently sized jars and because neither of us had experience with chard pickling, we made up a new recipe for each jar. The combinations ranged the gamut from mustard seed, coriander, cumin, and hot pepper to cinnamon and whole cloves to fresh chives and celery seed. The goal was to brine the chard stems in a wide variety of flavors and see how the end results compared.
Then, we processed the chard. We harvested it, stripped the leaves from the stem, and chopped the stems into pieces about 2 ½ inches long.
Next, we made our brine. Lacto-fermentation is a process that utilizes the naturally occurring bacteria on plants to help break them down, so we didn’t have to use vinegar. Instead, we made brine out of salt and water, with a 20% salt-water weight ratio. The salt acts as a kind of miracle agent in the pickling process, killing bad bacteria while letting the good ones remain.
With all the ingredients prepared, we started stuffing the chard stems into the jars, trying to pack them in as densely as possible. As well as wanting to maximize our space, we wanted to reduce the possibility of oxygen bubbles forming in the jar.
Once all the chard and spices had been crammed into the jars, we poured the salt brine in, filling the jars almost to the top. We then pushed the chard down more with our fingers and tapped the jars on the hard surface of the table in order to force all the oxygen bubbles up. Oxygen allows for bad bacteria to thrive, so it’s important to try to get as much of it out of the pickling containers as you can before they start to ferment.
Like the rest of the process, trying to get the oxygen bubbles out was an ad-hoc operation. We had a handful of people helping us, and the spectacle of all of us tapping our jars on the table chaotically or in different spontaneous rhythms was pretty absurd. There was much laughter and much accidental brine-spillage.
Sometimes people think of pickling as something that’s super difficult or fussy and view it as a process that requires specialist knowledge. But that’s not necessarily true. All it requires is a certain amount of adventurousness, a certain willingness to surrender control. This is how I like to think about pickling–you start with a bunch of ingredients in known form and combine them with the hope of getting something new, something unknown.
When the oxygen bubbles were out of the chard, we topped off the jars with a little more brine, screwed the lids on loosely, and put them in a fairly cool, temperature-steady room to sit. We don’t know how long we’ll let them ferment: in a few days we’ll taste them, think about the differences in the flavors, and decide if we want to let each jar get tangier and stronger in flavor or if we want to call it finished.
And when we decide a jar is finished, then comes the fun part: eating. We’ll get to eat and enjoy the chard in a new, previously unknown form. We’ll think about what it was like before, what it is like now, and if we were to do the project again, what it could be like then.
Until next week on the Farm,
photos by Ruoxi Yu
I spent the summer as a research assistant at The Land Institute (TLI) in central Kansas. Much of my energy last academic year went towards understanding their work, and all the ideas out there for shifting agriculture’s environmental impact in the grain belt and beyond, I’ve found this one to be most promising. So here I want to give a short overview of TLI’s work, which inspires and drives my academic and work aspirations.
Wes Jackson founded TLI in the 70s with the goal of developing perennial varieties of major grain crops. TLI works against the logic of industrial mono cropping of annuals by growing perennial crops in mixed stands; they strive for an agricultural system that mimics the form and function of native prairie ecosystems. In nature, systems always move towards dominance by perennial species. Annuals are the opportunists that come after disturbance—such as plowing. Thus, annual based cropping systems have always and will always work against nature’s inclination toward perennials. Wes Jackson likes to refer to this as the “10,000 year or problem of agriculture.” It’s the reason most civilizations throughout history eroded away their soils and collapsed; and maybe why the single activity which has most defined our species for the last 10,000 years is weeding.
Roughly 11,000 acres of native unplowed tall grass prairie at the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in eastern Kansas. At one time 400,000 square miles of this prairie covered much of the continent, and was rivaled only by the Serengeti in mega fauna abundance and diversity. Imagine an agriculture that mimics such productive and diverse systems
Here a bison grazes at The Land Institute.
Wes argues that perennializing grain production will address critical problems in industrial agriculture, such as soil erosion, water shortages, biodiversity loss, dependence on inputs (fertilizers and pesticides, etc.) and green house gas emissions. Most of these benefits come from the large root mass of some perennial crops. For example kernza (shown below) has root systems often 10 times as extensive as annual wheat cultivars. These roots systems enable drought tolerance, greater nutrient cycling, and increase levels of soil carbon—an important factor in soil fertility.
National geographic photograph comparing kernza with an annual wheat cultivar.
Bag of kernza flour, which has high nutritional value, and minimal gluten.
Prevention of soil erosion may be perennials’ greatest asset. We’ve now lost one third of our topsoil in the past 50 years, and with soil eroding from farmland 17 times faster then it is naturally created, erosion is perhaps one of the most pressing problems for agriculture. Crops like kernza with incredibly extensive roots hold and grow soil by ensuring continuous cover across agricultural landscapes, reversing erosion trends that have undermined civilizations since the dawn of agriculture.
Above: Fields of recent kernza transplants. Research technician and I transplanted important parent plants from the green house. These fields of kernza will grow back each year, and can be harvested just like any other field of wheat with a combine.
TLI uses traditional breeding methods for the domestication of Intermediate wheatgrass into a viable cultivar (kernza). Selection cycles are achieved by planting large populations of thousands of plants from which the best (agronomically speaking) can be isolated and selected as the parents for the next generation. Thus, within a few selection cycles—and without the use of modern genetic engineering technologies—TLI has increased kernza yields such that crops grown in Minnesota have achieved almost a third of conventional wheat. Next year in Minnesota, 50 farmers will be contracted to grow the crop by Pategonia Provisions. Other companies have expressed interest in the crop as well.
A few more selection cycles may put kernza on competitive grounds with conventional wheat. With only a decade of breeding and modest funding, kernza demonstrates reason for optimism when set against the 10,000 years of selection and billions of dollars that have generated the yields of modern genetically engineered wheat. Some scientists argued that perennials didn’t have the genetic potential for such high yielding, but researchers at TLI are tentatively optimistic that the crop might one day actually out-compete conventionally grown annual what cultivars.
The success of kernza and other perennial crops could literally change the face of the grain belt and the way we’ve produced the majority of our food for 10,000 years. It excites me to picture mixtures of perennial crops in place of endless monocultures of corn, soy, or wheat. I think of the biodiversity such landscapes would encourage. I think of my fabricated nostalgia for the prairies that once injected fertility into this landscape, and can’t think of a more perfect model for agriculture to aspire and return to.
Soil pits! On Monday, Professor Mark Bradford’s Soil Science course analyzed soil horizons on the Yale Farm. A very cool collaboration between YSFP and Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Shizue RocheAdachi, an Environmental Studies senior and Senior Advisor/Leader of the Chicken Tenders at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, writes about how her summer trip to a farming community in Wisconsin shaped the beginnings of her senior thesis.
I spent my summer in kitchens and living rooms, knees tucked under worn tables as strangers tentatively, and then eagerly, retold the stories of their farms and their families and the things that tied these two histories together. This was all called “research,” and indeed it was: notes were taken, audio was recorded, libraries were visited. But, it did feel like a rather indulgent practice. I was welcomed into the homes of strangers to hear the stories I love to listen to–– stories of how farmers became farmers, how farms became farms, how cows were bought and sold, how communities came and went, how crops were laid in strips and then, to the horror of some, became planted fencerow to fencerow, and how the closing of the last dairy on the street cast a shadow felt by all. I was a collector of agrarian stories, narratives I never assumed to be “true” in the objective sense but rather resonated as truth for the particular individual and, perhaps, for the community they aligned themselves with.
My newly acquired archives of what it means to be a farmer to a community of a couple thousand in a unknown elbow of Wisconsin will become the foundation of my senior thesis for Environmental Studies, crafted as both a written piece and a series of short radio pieces. If I were stuck in an elevator with you and you were to ask, “Shizue, what is your thesis about?” I would reply that it is an exploration of individual farmer and community identity in a small agricultural county of southwestern Wisconsin, focusing primarily on how identity is tethered to agricultural practice. If further prodded, I would explain that understanding engrained conceptions of what it means to be a farmer, particularly a good farmer, and the agricultural heritage of this county is critical to understanding the region’s recent visibility as the county with the highest number of organic farms. I suppose I would name the region as this point as Vernon County, located in the Driftless region of Wisconsin so named for the hills the glaciers never came to flatten. Vernon county is populated by a diverse community of farmers and yet despite divergent practices and agricultural/lifestyle ideals, these farmers are hesitant to draw lines. This is important if you, like me, are curious about how identity structure can inform agricultural transition, by which I mean how narratives of personal and community identity may encourage or impede shifts to more so-called “sustainable” forms of agriculture.
At this point the elevator ride would be over and perhaps you would care enough to ask me to send you a copy of the thesis. Well, you’ll have to wait till March for that but for now consider this an audio “teaser.” This is just one story of agriculture in the Driftless, the story of one small scale conventional dairy farmer witnessing the end of his way of life.
Click here to listen to the first of Shizue’s radio pieces.