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These four challenges will shape the next farm bill – and how the US eats

May 9, 2023

By Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

For the 20th time since 1933, Congress is writing a multiyear farm bill that will shape what kind of food U.S. farmers grow, how they raise it and how it gets to consumers. These measures are large, complex and expensive: The next farm bill is projected to cost taxpayers US$1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Modern farm bills address many things besides food, from rural broadband access to biofuels and even help for small towns to buy police cars. These measures bring out a dizzying range of interest groups with diverse agendas.

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Fertilizer prices are soaring – and that’s an opportunity to promote more sustainable ways of growing crops

June 15, 2022

By Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

Farmers are coping with a fertilizer crisis brought on by soaring fossil fuel prices and industry consolidation. The price of synthetic fertilizer has more than doubled since 2021, causing great stress in farm country.

This crunch is particularly tough on those who grow corn, which accounts for half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use. The National Corn Growers Association predicts that its members will spend 80% more in 2022 on synthetic fertilizers than they did in 2021. A recent study estimates that on average, this will represent US$128,000 in added costs per farm.

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What is bioengineered food? An agriculture expert explains

January 22, 2022

Most U.S.-grown soybeans are genetically modified, so products containing them may be required to carry the new ‘bioengineered’ label.

By Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines bioengineered food as food that “contains detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques that cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

If that definition sounds familiar, it is because it is essentially how genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are defined – common vocabulary many people use and understand.

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Unlike the US, Europe is setting ambitious targets for producing more organic food

November 4, 2021

By Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

President Joe Biden has called for an all-of-government response to climate change that looks for solutions and opportunities in every sector of the U.S. economy. That includes agriculture, which emits over 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year – more than the total national emissions of the United Kingdom, Australia, France or Italy.

Recent polls show that a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and willing to make lifestyle changes to address it. Other surveys show that many U.S. consumers are worried about possible health risks of eating food produced with pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.

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Swette Center Comments on USDA Meat Processing Investments

September 1, 2021

Secretary Vilsack,

Thank you for the opportunity to submit a comment regarding the investments and opportunities for meat and poultry processing infrastructure. We at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University applaud the attention to meat processing as a key strategy to build back better.

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Organic food has become mainstream but still has room to grow

August 18, 2021

By Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

Organic food once was viewed as a niche category for health nuts and hippies, but today it’s a routine choice for millions of Americans. For years following passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established national organic standards, consumers had to seek out organic products at food co-ops and farmers markets. Today over half of organic sales are in conventional grocery store chains, club stores and supercenters; Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Target and Safeway are the top five organic retailers.

Surveys show that 82% of Americans buy some organic food, and availability has improved. So why do overall organic sales add up to a mere 6% of all food sold in the U.S.? And since organic farming has many benefits, including conserving soil and water and reducing use of synthetic chemicals, can its share grow?

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Letter to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

March 6, 2020

By Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, and professor with appointments in the School of Sustainability, College of Health Solutions, and School of Public Affairs

Today a letter was sent to government leaders charged with developing the next iteration of the DGAs – Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an activity undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services every five years. I am a signatory on this letter and believe that it is past time for sustainability criteria to be integrated into dietary guidance. I will let the letter speak for itself.

Read the organizational letter submitted to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on March 4, 2020 here.

Swette Center Selected for Whole Foods Market 5% Day

November 8, 2019

Kathleen Yetman working at the Prescott Farmers Market

By Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

We’re thrilled to share that on Wednesday, Dec, 4, the brand-new Whole Foods Market Tempe store’s 5% Community Giving Day will benefit the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. The funds will support our inaugural food policy and sustainability leadership class tour across Arizona.

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New sustainable food systems courses to be offered

April 17, 2019

cabbage dishBy Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, and professor with appointments in the School of Sustainability, College of Health Solutions, and School of Public Affairs

Good news! I’ve just received word that we have the go-ahead to offer two new ASU Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) courses that will be listed under the School of Sustainability and co-listed with the ASU Morrison School of Agribusiness.

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Future of Food Event Highlights: Organic Agriculture

March 25, 2019

Not in OrganicMarch 19 the Swette Center welcomed Gary Hirshberg, who gave a great presentation on what to expect from the next generation of organic food. As expected, Hirshberg wowed our audience with facts about organic agriculture and engaged us in a discussion about why organic matters. Among other things, he shared with us the recent ad campaign organized and sponsored by the Organic Trade Association that highlights 700 synthetic ingredients prohibited in organic food:

This is a very quick post to share excellent coverage of the event by The Hagstrom Report (reprinted with permission). Hear Hirshberg's remarks from the event on YouTube.

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A Conversation with Dr. Raj Shah, President, Rockefeller Foundation

January 15, 2019

It was delightful to welcome Raj Shah to the ASU DC campus and interview him about the work of the Rockefeller Foundation and his insights on how we meet the challenge of achieving global food security. You can watch the entire interview here.

I first met Raj when we served together in the Obama Administration. He was the first Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics at USDA but was eventually kicked upstairs, as they say, to be Administrator of USAID. Raj has had a marvelous career and so it was not surprising to find our 8th floor pavilion full of people engaged in international development anxious to hear what he had to say.

One thing we talked about is the power of “food systems” as the organizing frame for conceiving solutions to food and agriculture challenges. I have found increasing recognition that food systems analysis can lead to better decision-making by policymakers and other actors seeking to understand potential trade-offs of proposed interventions, technologies, and policies by taking into account the many aspects of food and agriculture typically studied -- agricultural land, inputs, fisheries, infrastructure, labor, and the like -- and placing these component parts within an integrated social and environmental context.

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Partnering on nutrition with Society for International Development

November 1, 2018

Guest post by Suzanne Palmieri

Last week I had the good fortune to sit down to talk with and learn from three leaders on the latest thinking in advancing global nutrition. The presentations focused on different ways to approach nutrition and gave insights from their research to a packed room of nutrition practitioners at the Washington DC offices of the Society for International Development.

First, we heard from Shannon Doocey from Johns Hopkins University who reported on her research to test the effectiveness of employing cash transfers in emergencies, building on the evidence from non-crisis settings that cash is more efficient and supports local economies. Her study focused on food insecurity in Somalian households in acute food crises. She shared preliminary findings at the household level and, though the study had many limitations and recognizes that further study is needed, her conclusion was that the results showed promise.

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Front page shows love of soils

October 26, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

Healthy soils are the starting block for biodiversity, clean water, carbon sequestration, and sustainable agriculture. For years we’ve been treating our soil like, well, dirt, and it’s about time we start to acknowledge this precious resource for what it is – for our economy, environment, and society.

It’s hard to think about soil erosion without envisioning the Dust Bowl. Donald Wooster, author of the Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (2004) describes it as “one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in world history.” After years of westward expansion, a confluence of drought and intensive tilling and grazing of the prairies caused soil to rise from the land and travel as far as Washington D.C. In fact just blocks away from my office, the Lincoln Memorial was once shrouded in dust coming from as far as Kansas.

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Celebrating World Food Day

October 16, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

Photo copyright: The Good of the Hive 2018Today is World Food Day, recognized by more than 150 countries. Its celebration is a way to raise awareness of issues of poverty and hunger and the date was selected because back on October 16, 1945, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was established. Every year World Food Day has a different theme; in 2018 it is “Our actions are our future.” The FAO website urges us to undertake four actions.

  • Don’t waste food
  • Produce more, with less
  • Adopt a more healthy and sustainable diet
  • Advocate for #ZeroHunger (SDG 2)

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Future of Food series

October 11, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

During the 2018-19 academic year, the ASU Swette Center will host five forums on the future of food. In these forums, leaders will explore a range of issues, from new industry dynamics, to agtech innovations, global food security challenges, ecosystem services, and more. These events are designed to provide insights for policymakers in Washington DC and allow them to explore, through high-level conversations, cutting edge topics that have the potential to transform the food and agriculture sector.

Today we hosted our first event – a breakfast on the 8th floor pavilion attended by nearly 60 people. Because this was our opening event, it began with me offering my vision of the future of food and the ways the Swette Center will lead, particularly as it relates to engaging with industry. Three panelists followed.

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Sharing a vision

October 2, 2018

By Kathleen Merrigan

ASU is not my first university rodeo. I spent 8 years as the Director of the MS/PhD Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. I spent 4 years at George Washington University as the Executive Director of Sustainability and of the GW Food Institute. At both universities I was a member of the faculty and active in the classroom, offering a variety of courses.

I’m often referred to as the “former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture” because people want to stress what they believe to be my most important job. I suppose it depends upon the measure used. For me, the investment I’ve made in my students is likely to be the greatest achievement of my career. It is an honor to be on campus, working with students and faculty colleagues to generate new ideas to transform food systems.

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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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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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