The Sustainable Food Systems Initiative

The University of Michigan Sustainable Food Systems Initiative engages an interdisciplinary mix of students, faculty, and communities at local and global levels to learn from and build food systems that are health-promoting, economically viable, equitable, and ecologically sound.

Today’s global food system produces unprecedented quantities of food. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization estimates that over one billion people lack adequate food to satisfy minimum standards of nutrition, despite more than adequate global supplies, a perplexing pattern that has been evident for many years. Even more perplexing is the irony that obesity has become a major health problem for some, even as hunger continues to plague others. Moreover, the industrial agricultural systems that developed during the past century are increasingly recognized as environmentally unsustainable, in many cases causing environmental degradation and substantial losses of biological diversity. For consumers, food safety has emerged as a critical issue and for producers — farmers and farm workers — workplace safety and unfair compensation threaten the sustainability of their livelihoods. A global food system that simultaneously produces hunger and obesity,generates significant collateral environmental degradation, and compromises the well-being of farmers and eaters alike, indicates the need for serious analysis and action.

This challenge has been partially met with the emergence of a new paradigm that emphasizes sustainability and social equity rather than profit and production at its core. Contributions to this new paradigm are already emerging from many sectors of society, especially at the grassroots level (e.g., growing interest in local and regional food systems, increased demand for organic and fair-trade products, reinvigoration of inner cities through urban agriculture, new business models such as community supported agriculture and farmers markets, etc.). Yet we still lack a coherent intellectual foundation to inform and guide the construction of a clear path toward a sustainable and equitable food system that:

1) helps to reinvigorate rural and urban communities
2) supports public health
3) promotes environmental protection
4) enhances economies at state, national and international levels

Gavin_House_farmThe intellectual foundations of dynamically co-evolving natural and social systems deserve not only rigorous academic scrutiny but also engagement with those sectors that affect and are affected by food systems. As has happened so frequently in history, a clearly articulated intellectual foundation may help to promote leadership in critical debates that inevitably occur in paradigmatic transformation. The Sustainable Food Systems Initiative offers a vision of a foundation regarding the development of sustainable and equitable ways to produce and deliver nutritious food so as to improve people’s health and livelihoods, with minimal environmental damage and lasting economic security.

Ultimately, we need to plan landscapes that include cities, farms and natural and semi-natural areas, such that the health of humans and ecosystems is protected and promoted. This goal will be achieved by incorporating the dynamic role of interacting stakeholders (farmers and consumers) across the entire food system, to achieve landscapes that deliver a range of ecosystem services, while at the same time providing sustenance and equity for the world’s population. The sustainable food systems initiative at the University of Michigan is taking on those challenges.