Yale Food Systems Symposium – Forecasting and the Food System
This recent article in the New York Times describes the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) most recent scientific understanding of the risk climate change will pose to our global food supply As a Geology & Geophysics major focusing on climate, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the reciprocal relationship between our systems of food production and changing climate, and how we can modify our agriculture system to mitigate rather than contribute to climate change. Last week at the first Yale Food Systems Symposium, I witnessed a discussion that looked at the relationship between climate and agriculture from a different angle—how can we adapt our systems of food production to the inevitable warming we will continue to face for hundreds of years into the future? The panel, called “Forecasting and the Food System,” included four speakers that discussed the ways that communities, farmers, and scientists in different parts of the world—from India to Vermont—are thinking about and adapting to changes in weather and climate.
Of the four speakers, Ethan Butler’s talk was the most compelling. Ethan is a 6th year graduate student at Harvard University in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. He presented the warming projections from the last IPCC report and explained the phenomenon of committed warming. What this means is that even if we stop emissions of greenhouse gases today, the time lag between increased concentrations of these gases and rising temperatures means that we will continue to have temperatures far above those today for hundreds of years into the future. While this certainly will have far-reaching impacts beyond those we can comprehend today, Ethan’s talk confronted the facts with ways we can adapt our food system to these inevitable changes.
Ethan’s work focuses on historical evolutionary adaptations to changing climate that have occurred in crops and how these adaptations can help us understand agricultural responses to future climate changes. His talk at the Food Systems Symposium focused on US maize, looking at the different strains of corn in the various climate zones of the US. Corn varieties have naturally adapted to local conditions of water shortage or high winds, for example, and we can take advantage of these adaptations by adjusting the food crops grown in different zones to better fit the changing observed and projected temperatures.
Instead of the fear and bleak outlook that can easily pervade discussions of climatic effects on agriculture, Ethan’s focus on adaptation gives us some agency over our future and provides a meaningful strategy to confront the inevitable problem. Although it is only a part of the solution, this kind of adaptation will be necessary to provide enough food for rising populations. Many countries are beginning to confront this issue, as described in the New York Times article:
The [IPCC] report finds that efforts to adapt to climate change have already begun in many countries. President Obama signed an executive order on Friday to step up such efforts in the United States. But these efforts remain inadequate compared with the risks, the report says, and far more intensive — and expensive — adaptation plans are likely to be required in the future.
While my focus will continue to be on agricultural strategies to mitigate climate change, Ethan’s presentation increased my awareness of the ways we can adapt our food system to the inevitable changes we are beginning to experience. Both of these approaches will be important in producing food in our warming world.
Emily Farr ‘14 is a Senior Adviser with the YSFP. She is majoring in Geology and Geophysics and was a Summer 2012 Lazarus Intern.
School Food in New Haven
We took an inventory of each school’s kitchen and found that a couple schools did in fact have cooking utensils suitable for raw farm foods, tucked away in back rooms from before the Central Kitchen system was implemented. So these schools could be good places to start introducing local farm foods. Another idea would be to bring the ingredients to Central Kitchen itself. This would allow the farm ingredients to reach schools that did not have leftover cooking equipment—a welcomed goal as these equipment-barren schools are often located in the poorest communities of New Haven where students are likely not getting fresh veggies at home.
To that point, should we even be spending this much effort to improve the quality of food in schools when many of our citizens do not have enough money for food itself? In the six poorest communities in New Haven, four out of every ten people have experienced food insecurity in the past month. That is, they have not had always had enough money to buy the food they need. So is our farm food goal missing the point?
This is a question I often return to, but I do think in this case the focus of the project is well-chosen and poised to have long-lasting consequences: feeding our children farm food in schools does not only nourish them better at present, it also sets them on life-long patterns of eating nutritious food. Part of the challenge tied up in food insecurity is getting individuals nutrient-rich foods. But providing these foods will only be beneficial if people choose to eat them. I hope that feeding children nutrient-rich food while they are in school will set them up well to choose nutrient-rich foods once they are on their own.
New Entry and Food Access in Boston
Events Intern Jake Wolf-Sorokin ‘16 discusses his work with New Entry, a nonprofit serving the Greater Boston Area and questions his own food choices.
Up until leaving for college, I had spent my entire life living in the greater Boston area. For the first 18 years of my life, I knew one farmer by name: my uncle who raised lamb in rural Minnesota. Once I began thinking about the sources of food, it became hard to escape. Where had that tomato I’d eaten on my sandwich at lunch every day—even during New England’s winter—actually come from? Who picked it? Were they treated fairly? Was it organic? If not, what kinds of chemicals was it grown with? How was it shipped to Boston? Would the label tell me anything? Why couldn’t I find out all this information? What structural systems was I supporting by taking a bite out of that tomato? And couldn’t I be asking these questions about everything I eat?
The lack of connection to my food—one of life’s vital ingredients—began to really unsettle me. It seemed every question, generated three more until I’d cast aside the tomato, the lettuce, the turkey and the sprouts. All that was left of my lunch were two pieces of sourdough bread. I’d decided they were ok since they came from a bakery near my home that got its flour from an organic grower in New York. That’s when I began to see food consumption as a political act. In the short term, as someone living in an urban area, I lacked a means of escaping this food system. Without eating sandwiches like the one I described, I’d have trouble living. But by seeking answers to my questions and making efforts to change my habits, I’d be able to make some progress on a longer timescale. And that’s why I decided to intern at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization dedicated to helping aspiring organic farmers open viable farms near urban areas in Eastern Massachusetts.
Through my work, I had the chance to meet scores of small farmers aiming to make local farming the norm—or at least more common—again in America. “My goal for the future is to continue farming and to continue to supply people in the community,” Bessie Tsimba—one of these farmers—told me. She moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 1988. Like most immigrants, Bessie arrived without much land—let alone enough to begin a garden or farm. So for 20 years, Bessie—like most Americans—cooked with grains and vegetables bought at the grocery store. Over time she began to see farming as a reminder of home and a way to promote healthy eating.
In 2009, Bessie seized upon her renewed interest in farming and began a small-scale organic farm. “It’s something we grew up doing back home and I benefit from eating organic,” she said. Five years into her endeavor, Bessie sells her produce to a cooperative CSA and to many of her friends who also came to America from Zimbabwe. “I know the things they miss [from] back home,” Bessie told me. By growing maize and other crops common in Africa, but harder to find in the United States, Bessie has created a community around her farm.
Her optimism inspired me. Like many of the farmers trained by New Entry, Bessie didn’t have the means to give up her other job to farm full time. And despite five years of effort, she does not ever expect her farm to become her principal income. Bessie’s belief in the importance of food as a means of enriching culture and community motivates her.
As an organization, New Entry aims to ensure its farmers have a guaranteed source of income by operating a cooperative CSA. Although this CSA does not provide enough income to support a full time farmer, the World PEAS CSA represents a good first opportunity for many new farmers. Over the last 15 years, New Entry has helped to dramatically increase the ranks of urban, organic farmers in Eastern Massachusetts through its farmer training programs. Yet challenges remain: given the dense population of the region, the sum total of food produced by all these farmers represents a small fraction of the food needed to sustain all of the areas residents.
After spending a summer conducting farmer interviews for an analysis of New Entry’s success and working to promote the cooperative CSA, I left feeling both inspired and realistic. Centering our food system on sustainability and community health will require a dramatic change in our society’s understanding of what it means to consume food. Yet through the dedicated, passionate work of individuals like Bessie Tsimba and organizations like New Entry, these seeds of change in the food system are beginning to grow. Realigning our food system around sustainability and community health will require the collective effort of many individuals, beginning with a desire to understand the nuances of the connection between the food we consume and its source.
A Video from Eamon Heberlein ‘16
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure–with a number of YSFP staffers, Yale faculty members and students–of sharing a breakfast with Michael Pollan, god of all things food related. For the majority of the breakfast, I cowered in the corner of the table, afraid to arrogantly assume I might have something to add. But I did finally work up the courage to ask him a question, one related to a topic I think about a lot when it comes to considering recent changes in American gastro-culture.
We’ve all probably seen at least a bit of Top Chef. Maybe that’s just an assumption I’m making to rationalize my period of obsession in high school- it was my “Untextable Hour.” I stopped watching when I decided that they just weren’t showing enough of the actual food. But I’ve always assumed that the proliferation and popularization of cooking shows, be they competitions, travel shows, or demonstrations could at worst have a neutral effect on food culture in America, and at best could get Americans thinking more about how fun and satisfying it can be to cook. I assumed they were slowly priming us to go cook more, since we already model so much of what we do based on what we see on TV. But I wanted someone else’s take on this theory, so I sheepishly asked Mr. Pollan for his thoughts.
His answer was simple and in retrospect, very unsurprising. His response was basically that TV is designed for one thing, and that’s to keep people watching TV. Not anything else. So even if I end up making myself a sandwich instead of peeling open a Lunchable after watching some Hells’ Kitchen it’s probably not indicative: I’m an outlier, or someone who would have gotten up to make the sandwich myself anyway.
I’m sure there are valid counterarguments to this idea- what about documentaries? Newscasts? TV has been used effectively to motivate people often throughout history in some absurd ways. But to me it presented a more basic lesson, one that sits comfortably in between both theories: always seek to know why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, and whether you’re doing them for the right reasons.
There are many ways to be a conscious and responsible consumer of food, and obviously certain ones are more palatable or possible for certain people (in my house, we call Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck”). And if one of those ways is reinspiring yourself to cook periodically by tuning in to Top Chef, then more power to you! To not do that would be dumb. It’s clear is that dogmatic idealism and unrealistic expectations are just as, if not more harmful than getting a little distracted every once and a while.
At the same time, in our search for a better way to interact with our food, it’s important to not trick ourselves and let that distraction develop into inaction. Let’s make sure that we don’t get stuck feeling like we’ve done our duty when we buy an organic bunch of bananas, or judge others for their TV choices while we congratulate ourselves for being gluten-free locavores. If we’re going to choose to care about this issue, let alone work to improve things, then it’s important we don’t get stuck rationalizing and settling, or judging and proselytizing. If we all find the best way to be involved, and remember to think critically about our involvement, then we’ve taken the hardest and most important step forward. Even if that step takes you back onto the couch.
-John Gerlach, ‘14
Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15, on how a favorite farm task transforms the mundane:
I first worked on a farm (rather, I first stepped foot on a farm) during my freshman year of high school. The trip to Gaining Ground was posted on a school bulletin board under “Community Service.” Gaining Ground, the sign proclaimed, is a non-profit farm that donates all its food to local food banks and meal programs. Located just ten minutes from my high school, it was the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon volunteer shift. Never one to turn down an outdoor field trip in early spring, I immediately signed up. Looking back now, the memories of that short shift are beyond foggy. What I do remember though, is the feeling of being engaged in manual work. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something just felt so right about working my hands through the soil and crouching over a bed of newly planted seedlings.
A year later, I heard about Gaining Ground’s summer internship. I had barely given my workday a second thought, but remembering that still-so-poignant feeling, I decided to apply. Through the summer, I weeded, planted, harvested, weeded, prepped beds, and weeded some more. As any farmer will tell you—and as I discovered that summer—there will always be more weeding.
For some reason though, I relished that never-ending task. What is often the bane of the farmhand’s existence became my favorite job: hand weeding. Massaging the soil, grasping for weeds, pulling the unwanted plants from their roots, and finally looking back to see a bed of head lettuce surrounded by dark brown soil, was deeply satisfying. I found myself looking forward to the days when I would be sent out to the field, with or without a partner, to weed for hours on end. Even now, when I crave a task that is comforting, that will re-orient me with myself, I crouch down in a pathway, dig my hands into the soil, and start to weed.
When I try to understand my love of hand weeding, I often turn to the physicality of the work. Search and pull, search and pull. So easily, I can lose myself in the repetition, in the sheer simplicity of the action. At my best though, it is not just my body put to work; my mind too, is engaged in that repetition and simplicity. When I say that I lose myself in the task then, I mean that I am completely and totally present. I’m reminded what it is to find home in myself. This groundedness, I now realize, is the feeling of “rightness” that I knew but couldn’t name during my first shift at Gaining Ground. Now, I know its name and I know it’s what keeps me coming back to the farm time and time again.
Triple Bottom Line
by Sophie Mendelson, ‘15
So I have this crazy idea.
It’s an idea about what the farm of the future could look like. Big topic, I know, and right now the idea is still pretty half-baked, I’ll be the first to admit. It’s fanciful and incomplete, with untested foundations, erratically constructed extensions and a leaky roof. But seeing as it’s an idea about collaboration, and the first step toward any kind of collaboration is communication, I’m going to lay it out for you anyway.
This idea, like so many, starts with the identification of a problem: loneliness. I believe that loneliness is a problem that is often overlooked in the discussion surrounding sustainable, small-scale farming. When trying to envision the farm of the future, we spend a lot of time talking about economics and chemicals – how can farmers make a living? How can they reliably produce food without harmful technology? What new economic models and low-impact technologies can we implement? These are all important questions, but I think equally important is the question: how can we make the farming lifestyle sustainable? In other worlds, how can we help farmers not to be so darn lonely?
In my personal experience, loneliness has been THE NUMBER ONE hardest part of farming. Isolated geographically and socially, farming is often a solitary business. There is a huge difference between working fourteen-hour days with a group of people and working those same hours on your own, and I’m not just talking in terms of productivity. For me, the former is exhausting but satisfying, while the latter leaves me flattened and struggling to suppress a creeping sense of desperation. It’s no wonder that so many young farmers start out with enthusiasm only to quit after a couple of years in the field!
So here is my crazy idea: the farming cooperative. I may be twisting the word “cooperative” to fit my purposes here, because I don’t mean a totally consensus-based, commune-like farming model. What I have in mind is more closely matched to the Zingerman’s business model (check out A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building A Great Business by Ari Weinzweig if you’re intrigued). I’m talking about a farming model in which several quasi-independent farms, all located in the same geographic region or even the same property, collaborate to coordinate operations and market their products under one front. You could have, for example, a vegetable farm, a dairy farm, a meat farm, a fruit orchard, and a processing facility for value-added products that all run mostly independently from each other, but draw on each other for support and all market through the same outlet and under the same label.
In my idealized and untested fantasy version of this model, the farm cooperative would work to meet “the triple bottom line” (to steal, and then tweak, a phrase from Dina Brewster): economic, environmental, and spiritual. Economically, marketing through one outlet would provide consumers with an incentive to buy from the cooperative, as they could meet most of their grocery needs through the products collectively assembled. Environmentally, the cooperative model encourages a diversified farming approach, where multiple kinds of farming are all taking place in coordination with each other on one piece of property, allowing farmers to close nutrient cycles and feedback loops. And now here’s the biggie: spiritually, the cooperative addresses to major issues for farmers. First, it provides a built-in community. This model of farming necessitates the involvement of many families and many workers, de-isolating small-scale farmers and creating a social environment. Second, it makes it so that one farmer doesn’t have to keep track of everything that is going on in a diversified farm all by his or her self – each operation is managed by a separate set of people, who then collaborate to bring their operations in concert with each other, thus diffusing the responsibility and easing the need for manic multi-tasking. Oh yeah, and each operation can help out other operations during times of particular need, like harvesting tomatoes or slaughtering chickens, strengthening social bonds and reducing the need to bring in extra labor during these times.
So far, that is the extent of the crazy idea. I would love, love, LOVE to talk to people about this, so please don’t be shy! Help me poke some holes in this thing so that we can build it back up even stronger.