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Time to big-dig American agriculture?

September 26, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

A few months ago, Bloomberg published a series of maps about How America uses its land. While we may quibble about the details of the maps, the timing is right to be thinking about what and where we grow things in this country. We need to be talking more about the land we use for agricultural production, and also about issues of limited farm labor, climate change, and changing dietary demands. Now is the time to be asking ourselves if there are better ways to farm, if there are more sustainable practices, and if we can be more equitable in the way we use land.

I lived in Boston during the “Big Dig.” Anyone who lived in or around the Boston area from 1991 to 2006 is likely to have a story or two about the Big Dig era. The Big Dig is the unofficial name for the massive project to bury the highway that coursed over and through Boston. Many could not imagine changing such a massive historic city so dramatically. The Big Dig transformed the city of Boston, and took years of planning, investment, and public engagement. It seemed impossible to most at the time, and many thought it would never be completed! But these days incoming freshmen at Boston University likely can’t imagine a city without the highway running beneath it. And it has changed the city for the better, opening new public spaces and increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

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ASU researchers exploring how changes in snowpack impact water rights, policy

September 21, 2018

Snowy mountain with forestMountain snowpack is melting earlier, leaving water regulators searching for new approaches and farmers concerned about the risk to their crops. To help stakeholders find solutions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday awarded $4.9 million to an interdisciplinary team of researchers from five institutions in three states, including Arizona State University.

Mountain snowpack and rainfall are the primary sources of water for the arid western United States, and water allocation rules determine how that water gets distributed among competing uses. But earlier melting of mountain snowpack is altering the timing of runoff, putting additional pressure on reservoirs to meet the needs of agricultural water rights holders.

Over the next five years, scientists from ASU will join researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno; Desert Research Institute; Colorado State University and Northern Arizona University to use a new $4.97 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore different aspects of this issue:

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Sustainable scallops

September 13, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

Swimming scallops? That’s surprising! It’s also surprising how often seafood is left out of conversations about sustainability and food. That’s why we included this photo of swimming scallops on our website, and why we make it a point to include seafood in our thinking about sustainable food systems.

Seafood makes up the primary protein source for over one billion people, and sustainable fishing is one of the most important things we can do to feed the world and conserve the oceans. Scallops and other bivalves are not only a sustainable option, they actually improve water quality and rebuild coastal habitats. Unlike mussels and oysters, scallops spend their lives resting on (rather than attached to) the seafloor, ready to swim away from predators. They use their adductor muscle to flap their shells open and closed, creating enough momentum to fly off the sand and into the water.

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Dining with Dan

September 5, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

You’ve heard of “chef-driven cuisine” and “farm-to-table” cuisine, but what about a “farm driven chef”? World-renowned chef Dan Barber is working to be just that. Dan argues that designing a “farm-to-table” menu is not enough to achieve a sustainable meal. Chefs need to go farther and reimagine their plates as a meal that regenerates farmland, rather than depletes it.

What could that look like? Well for one, a beet steak might replace your beef steak in the center of the plate. Animal protein may become a side dish or condiment rather than the main component of the meal. Wasted food is re-envisioned; the liquid in the can of garbanzo beans is whipped into aquafaba, a delicacy like merengue or marshmallow. And soil health is celebrated through a rotational risotto, comprised of all the crops needed for sustainable land management.

By putting the farm front and center in creating the menu, Dan sees the meal of the future rebuilding biodiversity, soil health, increasing farmer livelihoods, and tasting absolutely delicious.

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Shaking things up

August 28, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

Still from the 1993 Columbia Pictures film Groundhog Day with Bill MurrayRegrettably, we seem stuck in the same old farm bill battles. While still incredibly important, there is so little new about the legislation and the overall debate. Call me weary, it’s my 6th or 7th farm bill, depending on whether you count that mini corrections farm bill in 1997. Outside of Washington, the food world is swirling, exploding with new ideas. Inside the Beltway, it’s Groundhog Day.

That’s among the reasons why I’m so pleased to be joining ASU, rated #1 for innovation by US News and World Reports four years running. The role of the university, according to ASU President Michael Crow, is to create and disseminate knowledge that drives economic productivity and social progress. His vision of faculty is that we are to be knowledge entrepreneurs. Part of our jobs is to facilitate collaborative and strategic partnerships; help people commercialize ideas; encourage start-ups and spin-offs companies, and work to optimize business models. I love that.

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Reforms to US recreational fishing management could generate up to $1 billion in benefits

August 20, 2018

fishing boat sailing out during sunsetRecreational fishing is a culturally and economically important practice around the world. In the United States alone, more than 9.5 million anglers take 63 million fishing trips per year, providing food, leisure and connection to nature while creating opportunities for employment in coastal communities. These leisure trips also contribute to costly overfishing.

Worldwide reforms to fishery management practices could create valuable benefits to anglers and related sectors — benefits that could total one billion dollars in value annually in the U.S., according to a new paper out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The study uses survey data from anglers who fish in the Gulf of Mexico to estimate the potential benefits of management reforms. The results showed that anglers preferred to choose when they could fish; longstanding frustrations over inflexible and shrinking seasons for recreational red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico have fueled political debate and sparked contentious proposals in the region as well as in Congress.

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Former USDA deputy secretary named executive director of Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems

View Source | August 20, 2018

Kathleen MerriganKathleen Merrigan, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and a leader in sustainable food systems, is the first executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University. Merrigan also holds the position of the Kelly and Brian Swette Professor of Practice in Sustainable Food Systems with appointments in the School of Sustainability, College of Health Solutions and School of Public Affairs.

The Swette Center was announced in late 2017 after entrepreneurs Kelly and Brian Swette made a major gift to ASU to establish the center and an endowed scholarship. The foremost goal of the Swette Center is to educate the next generation of consumers and decision makers through the first Sustainable Food Systems degree program.

“We are fortunate to have Kathleen lead the center, and there isn't a better place to launch it than ASU,” said Kelly Swette. “There can no longer be an indifference to how and what we eat.”

DJ Donpasta mixes culture and cuisine at ASU

View Source | March 30, 2018

DJ DonpastaDJ Donpasta, also known as Daniele De Michele, is an Italian performance artist and food advocate whose studies in economics drove him to food justice and activism. He performed at ASU as part of a multi-day visit co-sponsored by the Food Systems Transformation Initiative, the School of International Letters and Cultures, the School of Sustainability, the Herberger Institute Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs, and Aramark.

For his performance during the "Food Systems & Beyond: Food Reconnection" celebration,  Donpasta prepared plant-based Italian recipes on the patio of Engrained while mixing vinyl and chatting with  ASU students, staff, and faculty about issues affecting global food systems.

“When you start to work with food you start to understand the more important thing is that food is political,” De Michele said. “Food is production in the field, food is the work of the people, food is the health of the child and you can’t think about food if you can’t think of the quality of life of the people.”

Food Systems director calls for lifestyle-wide behavior change for a more sustainable future

View Source | February 20, 2018

Chris WharChris Whartonton, director of the Food Systems Transformation Initiative, gives the latest KEDTalk hosted by ASU's Knowledge Enterprise Development. "We live in a world of wild, damaging, unsustainable excess," he says, and the solution requires a rapid, transformational response. By revealing what is hidden in plain sight, Wharton illuminates a path to health, wealth, happiness and sustainability through values-based behavior change.

Sci-fi can offer a window to our food future

View Source | February 1, 2018

The Minnesota DietThere are plenty of sci-fi stories set in post-apocalyptic scenarios where urban ruins crumble amid mass environmental destruction, and the remaining human communities struggle to find food, water and shelter. Charlie Jane Anders’ short sci-fi story “The Minnesota Diet” is different, and the Food Systems Transformation Initiative (FSTI) director Chris Wharton explains why in a special Future Tense article for Slate.

Anders’ story begins in fictional New Lincoln, a technologically advanced, future urban city seemingly well-insulated from agricultural vulnerabilities—until it isn’t.

Wharton says “The Minnesota Diet” offers opportunities for backcasting and reflection on our current behaviors when it comes to our food system. Anders’ story lends insight into more than just the technological efficiencies required for food production and delivery systems — it invites us to think critically about the choices we make right now with the resources we have today.

ASU Announces New Center in Sustainable Food Systems

View Source | December 7, 2017

Kelly and Brian SwetteWith the aim of finding better solutions to today's food-related challenges, Kelly and Brian Swette have made a major gift to establish the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University.

The new center, housed within the School of Sustainability, will tackle food systems from a holistic standpoint, taking into consideration water and energy use, carbon footprint and nutrition – all with an emphasis on efficiency across the global supply chain. It will also offer the nation’s first degree in Sustainable Food Systems.

Explaining that the new center will accelerate and expand current efforts, Dean Christopher Boone said, "By combining ASU’s assets as a research powerhouse with the entrepreneurial spirit of our students and the expertise from external partners, these sustainable food systems solutions will have profound and positive implications for livelihoods, human health and ecosystem integrity."

Brian is a member of the Board of Directors of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, as well as an alumnus of the university. In 2012, he and Kelly launched Sweet Earth Natural Foods – a company that sells plant-based, natural and organic fare.

Growing a plant-based brand in the world of 'Big Food'

November 16, 2017

Kelly SwetteAccording to Kelly Swette, CEO of Sweet Earth Enlightened Foods, "The future of food is plant-based and the disruption has begun."

In a November 2017 interview with Nil Zacharias on his One Green Planet podcast #EatForThePlanet, Swette discusses her decision to sell Sweet Earth to food giant Nestlé. She also talks about her goal to make convenient, sustainable and healthy foods the new norm, and how best to market such foods.

Finding fulfillment through food choices

View Source | October 4, 2017

VeggiesWhat we put on our plates affects our overall health, from our individual bodies to the planet as a whole. Christopher Wharton – director of the Food Systems Transformation Initiative (FSTI) – and other researchers from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability are studying the long-term effects of our diets on happiness, sustainability and ethics.

One ongoing FSTI study is examining food and fulfillment, gauging the motivators and barriers of adopting and maintaining plant-based diets. Though results are not yet in, researchers expect a correlation with long-term happiness because of the knowledge that there are positive health, environmental and other sustainability benefits to adopting a strictly or primarily plant-based diet.

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Agriculture in Arizona faces a warmer future

View Source | March 27, 2017

Rows of green lettuce in a fieldHow might climate change affect Arizona? A decrease in crop yields, for one thing, according to Andrew Berardy – a postdoctoral research associate with the Food Systems Transformation Initiative – and Senior Sustainability Scientist Mikhail Chester.

After studying the food-energy-water nexus that governs agriculture in Arizona, the pair found that the state's yields could drop more than 12 percent per 1 degree Celsius. This would have cascading effects – including more irrigation and increased food prices – that would be felt throughout the region.

In light of roll-backs in environmental protection by the Trump administration, Berardy and Chester advise that farmers upgrade to more efficient irrigation methods like drip irrigation. Their findings were published in IOP Science.

Seeds of opportunity: Are veterans the future of farming?

View Source | December 6, 2016

A group of men in uniform pose for the cameraAs the nation's farming population continues to age and retire without replacements, our shortage of farmers is more grave than ever. Meanwhile, thousands of military veterans are returning home seeking meaningful, peaceful employment.

In order to combat both of these issues, filmmaker Dulanie Ellis suggested veterans take over for retiring farmers – an idea explored in her documentary "Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields."

Sydney Lines, coordinator of the Food Systems Transformation Initiative at ASU, hosted the film screening and subsequent panel discussion in downtown Phoenix. In an interview with ASU Now, Lines expresses her enthusiasm for the concept of veterans replacing retiring farmers. She notes not only the special skills veterans have to fill these rolls, but also the beneficial and therapeutic effects farming has on veterans returning home from war.

Dinner 2040 provides a taste of the future

View Source | November 14, 2016

Diners take notes while eating colorful meal outdoorsHosted by local, organic Maya's Farm in November 2016, Dinner 2040 was a meal served to spark conversation.

The charrette-style gathering – planned by sustainability scientist Joan McGregor with support from the Food Systems Transformation Initiative – put people from diverse backgrounds around the same table. While enjoying equitably-produced dishes, diners like academics, chefs, activists, legislators and others discussed key values related to food and how they can be better implemented going forward.

McGregor hopes that Dinner 2040 events will serve as a template for “future of food” workshops and dinners in communities across North America. She explores food-related values in detail in a October 2016 Thought Leader Series contribution titled "Putting Values on Our Plates."

Best-selling author takes a look at your next meal

View Source | April 14, 2016

Author Michael Pollan sitting at table with his books smiling at studentAuthor, journalist and food activist Michael Pollan — named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine — gave a Wrigley Lecture on April 14, 2016, as part of the School of Sustainability's 10th anniversary celebration.

Pulling from 15 years of research, Pollan detailed the many shifts in agriculture since the industrial revolution – including the move from sunlight to oil. He explained how many factories that supported WWII – like those that manufactured bombs – went into the food business post-war, making products like pesticides instead.

These shifts have had a number of unintended negative consequences, Pollan explained. They include crops that are so laden with chemicals that they are not fit for direct human consumption, a poor quality of life for farmed animals, and a significant toll on the overall health of Americans.

Pollan concluded by commending the ASU Wrigley Institute for its focus on solutions to the problems of food system sustainability. After receiving a standing ovation, he joined the excitement at both the Rescued Food Feast and Festival of Sustainability at ASU.

Collaborative efforts to address youth hunger and unemployment

March 5, 2016

girl with backback kneeling in gardenThe Food Systems Transformation Initiative (FSTI) is excited to collaborate with the Global Youth Innovation Network, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and other partners to support the Youth Agribusiness, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship Summit on Innovation YALESI 2016 held in Dakar, Senegal.

Youth employment and hunger are two key issues that have been impacted by the economic crisis. This is particularly true for youth living in developing countries, representing 85% of the world youth. To address these issues, YALESI 2016 will prioritize young people’s needs, considering their developmental needs, and including underserved populations, such as girls, to an effective and inclusive employment strategy.

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New publication: Adapting a social-ecological resilience framework for food systems

June 30, 2015

Two of our FSTI affiliates - Jennifer Hodbod and Hallie Eakin - have published a new paper in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. 'Adapting a social-ecological resilience framework for food systems'  addresses the purpose of applying social-ecological resilience thinking to food systems before going on to distinguish between the resilience of food systems and broader conceptualizations of resilience in social-ecological systems. The paper then focuses on functional and response diversity as two key attributes of resilient, multifunctional food systems, using the drought in California to unpack the potential differences between managing for a single function—economic profit—and multiple functions. Their analysis emphasizes how the evolution of the Californian food system has reduced functional and response diversity and created vulnerabilities, and how managing for the resilience of food systems will require a shift in priorities from profit maximization to the management for all functions that create full food security at multiple scales.

For further details please contact

Hodbod, J., & Eakin, H. (2015). Adapting a social-ecological resilience framework for food systems. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-11. DOI:10.1007/s13412-015-0280-6

ASU offers new Certificate in Food System Sustainability

April 6, 2015

food-system-sustainabilityFood systems are particularly important for human societies to sustain, as well as particularly vulnerable to multiple threats related to the interconnected sustainability challenges we face.

Reflecting the breadth of food system issues researched and taught at ASU, the School of Sustainability now offers a 15-credit interdisciplinary Certificate in Food System Sustainability - a comprehensive, sustainability-oriented introduction to food systems for undergraduate students.

The certificate, which complements a variety of majors from agribusiness to English, draws from food-related courses in the social sciences, humanities, life sciences and applied sciences. Each discipline approaches food sustainability from a different angle, giving students a holistic understanding of food-related challenges and solutions.

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