Category Archives: Press

January 20, 2017

Campus Farm helps cultivate lessons in sustainable agriculture

ANN ARBOR, MI — The University of Michigan will attempt to convert human urine into a safe fertilizer for agriculture crops as part of a new $3 million grant.

University of Michigan engineering researchers lead the project with the help of the grant from the National Science Foundation. They will work with colleagues at the Vermont-based Rich Earth Institute, U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, U-M School of Public Health, University at Buffalo and an independent communications consultant, according to a news release.


The team is installing special demonstration toilets in the G.G. Brown building on U-M’s North Campus. The toilets, which include a waterless urinal and a “source separating” flush toilet, will route urine to a holding tank where it will be treated. It will eventually be used to create fertilizers that will be used at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The toilet facilities will be open for use this fall.

Rebecca Lahr, a former post-doctorate student at
the University of Michigan’s Environmental and Civil
Engineering department, counts organisms in a drop of
urine in an effort to determine how to make safe urine
derived fertilizers for agriculture. Photo l Marcin Szczepanski

Urine contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are all key nutrients that plants need to grow.

The new endeavor has the potential to grow food in a way that saves money and resources, and reduces water pollution, said U-M professor of civil and environmental engineering and project leader Nancy Love.

While the study aims to make advances in several areas, Love said none of that is possible unless the idea of using human urine as a fertilizer is embraced by the public at large.

“One is technology,” said Love in a news release, referring to the study’s potential benefits. “But we can throw all the technology in the world at this problem and make no progress towards implementation unless the second area is advanced — and that’s the social behavior piece. We’re investigating the attitudes people hold towards the use of urine-derived fertilizers and will be testing and evaluating educational interventions.”

Love leads the project with Krista Wigginton, U-M associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

On the technology side, researchers will test advanced urine-treatment methods such as charcoal filtration, which is also used for purifying drinking water. The research team also will compare the public health and environmental risks of urine-derived fertilizers, synthetic fertilizers and biosolids — another name for treated sewage.

“We believe our work will take urine-derived fertilizer to a point where it’s safer than synthetic fertilizers and biosolids,” Love said.

The grant kicks off the nation’s largest program exploring the technology, systems requirements and social attitudes associated with urine-derived fertilizers. It expands work the group started a few years ago growing lettuce and carrots at a research plot in New England. Since 2014, the researchers have been exploring ways to remove bacteria, viruses and residual pharmaceuticals from urine to make it a viable fertilizer.

“We have methods for producing safe fertilizer from urine at the small scale, and now we are developing new technologies to meet the challenge of scaling up. At the same time, we will be assessing ways to introduce the idea of urine recycling into existing modes of thinking,” said Abraham Noe-Hays, director of research at the Rich Earth Institute, in a news release.

Article published by MLive on Sept 8, 2016

SFSI Faculty Ivette Perfecto on Coffee, Biodiversity, and Social Justice

This article was printed in the University Record on April 18, 2016 (full article here)
By Iris Jeffries

School of Natural Resources and Environment Professor Ivette Perfecto has spent more than 20 years studying the ecology of coffee farms.

“You find a huge range of systems on coffee farms,” says Perfecto, George Willis Pack Professor and professor of natural resources and environment. “I wanted to understand better what this diversity does in the ecosystem, and how it contributes to the sustainability and productivity of the farms.”

Today, many traditional coffee agroforestry systems convert to coffee monocultures in order to increase yields. The change eliminates trees to increase photosynthesis levels, and thus, coffee production.

“When you convert to monocultures of coffee, you lose a lot of associated biodiversity,” Perfecto says. “My graduate students and I have solid evidence that diversity in coffee plantations contributes to the control of pests, among other ecological services.”

Ivette Perfecto, professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, studies the ecology of coffee farms and their sustainability and productivity. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

With a primary focus on spiders, ants, birds and bats — Perfecto investigates how such organisms contribute to or control the pests in coffee.

“We started looking at the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity in shaded coffee farms and what is lost when shade trees are removed,” Perfecto says.

Perfecto’s work demonstrates that shaded coffee maintains high levels of biodiversity that contribute positively to the farms. Along with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Perfecto promotes traditional shaded plantations.

“Not only is it good to leave shade trees for the birds on their migratory paths, but it’s important to look at what the birds do for the farm,” Perfecto says. “The more diversity you have there, the more mechanisms of prevention of pest outbreaks you have there, built right into the system.”

Birds’ presence on coffee farms helps to suppress pest outbreaks. Still, many farmers are more interested in short term financial gain and turn to pesticides which sometimes are provided at low cost by the government.

“Coffee is a very important export crop in many countries in Latin America,” Perfecto explains. “With more and more demand for coffee production, farmers opt to utilize cheap pesticides and shaded farms occur less and less.”

While some farmers do maintain shaded coffee farms, there are incentives to intensify.

Furthermore, “coffee rust” has recently devastated coffee production in Central America. No one truly knows the root cause of the outbreak.

“We have our theories about the intensification effects of coffee at the landscape level,” Perfecto says, implying that deforestation and the reduced number of shaded coffee farms is to blame, at least partially. “Because shaded coffee farms reduce wind, it would also reduce the dispersal of the spores of the coffee rust.”

Here at Michigan, Perfecto busies her research lab with two Ph.D. students and eight master’s students while teaching courses. Beyond work, Perfecto and her students gather in the lab and play music or have salsa-dancing parties. They once even tried to establish a ukulele band.

“It’s not my exclusive work,” Perfecto says of her research. “My students have done most of it!”

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

In general I enjoy teaching and I have very fond memories of interactions with students in the classroom.

What can’t you live without?

Interactions with students. They are the ones that keep bringing interesting questions or fresh ways to look at a particular research question. Although I enjoy doing research a lot, it would not be as much fun without students.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

The Arb, although I don’t go there as often as I would like.

What inspires you?

Nature and social justice.

What are you currently reading?

“The Swerve: How the World became Modern,” by S. Greenblatt, and “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by C. C. Mann.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

John Vandermeer and Richard Levins.


On Thursday, November 19th, over 50 farmers, faculty members, staff and students flooded a small classroom in Kraus in order to taste test six accessions of sweet potatoes for best taste and texture. Upon arrival, tasters received a form and instructions on how to properly conduct the taste test. Individuals then circled the room tasting sweet potatoes and taking a sip of water in between potato stations. Homemade sweet potato pie greeted tasters as a reward for the hard work of taste testing.

The event, which was hosted by Dr. Gina Baucom and Tilo Roy, postdoctoral research associate in EEB, was held to compare the difference between sweet potatoes grown in Matthaei Botanical Garden and Ohio University in Athens, OH. Baucom and Roy will use the data from the taste test to further understand the preferences among the public for specific accessions of sweet potatoes over others, which will allow them to identify varieties suitable for cultivation locally in the Michigan area.

The Baucom lab is assessesing the phenotypic traits of sweet potatoes to determine the best yield in distinct environments. Now we are considering another important quality of the sweet potato–how they taste!

Please help us “Taste the Taters” (Nov 19 @ 5pm). We will taste six different accessions to determine which has the best flavor and texture. With the help of data from the taste test, we will be able to further understand consumer preferences for specific accessions of sweet potatoes. Ultimately, the taste test will help us find and establish varieties most suitable for local cultivation.


Did You know…

  • Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is the seventh most important food crop worldwide, as it is grown on at least eight million hectares in 114 countries.
  • This species is higher in beta carotene than many other vegetables and is a great source of potassium, fiber, vitamins A and C. 
  • In comparison with other major food crops, sweet potatoes produce the highest amount of edible energy per hectare
  • Sweet potatoes play a major role in combating world hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. It is a particularly significant food crop in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa due to its high nutritional value.

There are approximately 6000 varieties of sweet potatoes and they display a remarkable range of variation in their storage roots (size, shape, color), stem coloration, leaf shape, canopy size, leaf color, ability to flower, and overall flower production.

2015-10-08 10.14.56 HDR

Taste the Taters!

Thursday, Nov 19 @ 5pm
Kraus (EEB) Building, rm 3141

Photo Left: Tilo Roy, post-doctoral research associate in the EEB dept, collects data on the above-ground biomass of sweet potato varieties grown at the UM Mattheai Botanical Gardens

Faculty discuss foodways, agriculture in 10 mini talks


Art & Design prof. Joe Trumpey speaks about sustainable farming in his speech titled “Homesteading as Creative Practice” at the Fast Food for Thought discussion in the Dana Building on Tuesday. (Zoey Holmstrom/ Daily)

By Anna Haritos
October 28, 2015

The University’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative hosted 10 bite-sized talks Tuesday night on topics related to food and agriculture.

The second annual “Fast Food for Thought” talk brought together nine faculty members from several University departments, with the 10th “talk” formatted as a Q&A session. Each of the speakers was given five minutes to address a broad range of global and local food topics, including sustainability, potential connections between food and politics and the growing problem of herbicide resistance. The UM SFI encourages University students and faculty members to learn about and promote food systems that are beneficial to both the environment and economy.

More than 200 attendees filled the lecture hall in the Dana Building. Thomas Princen, associate professor of natural resource and environmental policy, started off the event by asking, “Why food, why now?” In his talk, he briefly explained his six hypotheses for why American interest in food has skyrocketed in the past few years.

Among them: the “brains and hands” hypothesis. What distinguishes humans from other animals, Princen said, is the ability to combine experiences both tactile and intellectual. He said because food engages humans both with their brains and with their hands, people connect with food.

“Just think about what you have to know to grow a crop, the land, the weather, the markets,” he said. “A lot of that knowledge is not from food study or data it is from the very feel of the land. Maybe the increased interest in food that we feel more human when we engage with food.”

University Lecturer Margot Finn discussed the connection between fast food and social class. During the talk, she cited statistics to debunk the association between poverty and fast food.

“The 2013 Gallup Poll that found that American households with annual income of over $50,000 a year were more likely to say they eat fast food on a weekly basis than lower-income groups,” Finn said. “Fast food consumption increases along with income, peaking in the $60- to $70-thousand-dollar bracket.”

She went on to discuss how families with lower incomes are more likely to make meals from scratch, as prepared and restaurant meals are often out of their budgets.

“One reason for the association between the poor and fast food is because people believe that eating fast food makes you fat, and poor people are strongly associated with fatness, and the other stigmatized characteristics that go along with it like ignorance, laziness, apathy and lack of willpower,” Finn said.

After the event, LSA junior Lia Parks said she didn’t realize how important food was in American culture.

“I never realized how food and sustainability were so intermeshed in culture, and that we need to rethink the way we do and think about things,” Parks said.

The article has been updated with an attendance tally from the event organizers.

Originally featured at The Michigan Daily 

Healthy Choices program for middle schoolers helps reduce obesity, encourage healthy habits

August 25, 2015
ANN ARBOR—An interdisciplinary school program designed to promote healthy behaviors reduced the percentage of 7th graders who were overweight or obese and helped more than 20,000 middle school students cut back on TV viewing, increase their physical activity and make healthier food choices.


Research led by the University of Michigan Department of Nutritional Sciences showed that for 5,700 of the students participating in the Massachusetts Healthy Choices program, the prevalence of overweight and obesity decreased from 42 percent to 38 percent and the proportion considered obese fell from 22 percent to 20 percent, during the three-year study period.

At the same time, out of the 20,000 6th-8th graders in 45 schools, the number that met goals for fruit and vegetable consumption increased from 16 percent to 19 percent. Those who engaged in physical activity for 60 minutes on most days increased from 37 percent to 40 percent, and those meeting a target of less than two hours of daily TV viewing went from 53 percent to 58 percent.

“These gains are significant from a public health perspective, and show that schools can successfully implement multicomponent programs that not only improve students’ health behaviors but also reduce the percent who are overweight or obese during adolescence, a critical period for the development of obesity,” said Karen Peterson, professor and chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the U-M School of Public Health, and a research professor at the Center for Human Growth and Development.

The school-based intervention, aimed at improving dietary and physical activity behaviors and weight status, was implemented in 128 middle schools from 2004-09 by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, in collaboration with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Researchers conducted their study over three academic years, 2005-08.

The multicomponent program consisted of the Planet Health interdisciplinary curriculum, previously shown to be effective in a randomized, controlled trial, coupled with before- and after-school activities, environmental and policy assessment and changes, school-wide health promotion campaign, and development of a multidisciplinary implementation team of school staff and community partners.

Healthy Choices had four goals: reduce television viewing, increase moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, decrease consumption of foods high in fat and saturated fat, and increase intake of fruits and vegetables.

These were translated into three behavioral targets within the curriculum, promoted to students as the “5-2-1 goals”:

  • Consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
  • Limit screen time to no more than two hours per day.
  • Participate in at least one hour of physical activity on most days.

“Healthy Choices worked because it was grounded in an interdisciplinary, multicomponent intervention—previously tested in rigorous research—then translated to real-world settings by schools’ implementation teams,” Peterson said.

Peterson and other authors of the study are affiliated with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Massachusetts Department of Public Health; Boston Children’s Hospital; Center for Community-Based Research, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston; Department of Kinesiology, University of Rhode Island; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Northeast Region, Boston; Hunt Consulting Associates, Logan, Utah; and Harvard Medical School.

Originally featured at Michigan News 


Food movement is the focus of May 28-29 Michigan Meeting

By Kevin Brown
May 19, 2015

The ascendant Food Sovereignty movement — in which peasant farmers, fishers and farmworkers seek to solve world problems in food and agriculture — is the focus of an academic conference opening May 28 at the University of Michigan.

“Food Sovereignty: Local Struggles, Global Movement” at the School of Natural Resources and Environment’s Dana Building will feature presentations and discussions that focus on La Via Campesina. This international peasant umbrella organization emphasizes social equity over production and profit.

food_sov_logo“It has a massive presence in tropical America, Asia and Africa. La Via Campesina has impacted food sovereignty laws written in Ecuador and Venezuela. Academics in the global north are kind of behind. It is an unusual situation in that a major narrative, food sovereignty, has its origin among poor people in the underdeveloped world, and it has been spreading like wildfire,” says John Vandermeer, Asa Gray Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in LSA.

Vandermeer will open the conference, which is one of the university’s two annual Michigan Meetings, with a welcome and overview at 4 p.m. Thursday. Ivette Perfecto, George W. Pack Professor of Natural Resources in SNRE, will follow by moderating the discussion “The Expansive and Expanding Narrative of Food Sovereignty.”

foodsov_garden“This movement is challenging the assumption that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world. It is proposing that small- and medium-scale farmers using agro-ecological methods can feed the world and contribute to cooling the climate,” Perfecto says. She adds that industrial agriculture is among the contributors to global warming.

The conference features speakers, panel discussions, and poster sessions on the different aspects of food sovereignty. Professors, researchers and working professionals, from the U.S. and abroad, will present.

Although the conference is free, registration is requested. Sessions include:

  •  “Connecting local struggles with global activism in inter-governmental arenas, the importance of the Food Sovereignty narrative,” with Philip McMichael, at 4:15-4:45 p.m. Thursday. He is a professor and chair of the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University.
  • “Extending the discourse of Food Sovereignty through the global food system,” 4:45-5:15 p.m. Thursday, with Hannah Wittman. She is associate professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia.
  • “Building Food Sovereignty in Detroit: Opportunities and Challenges,” 11-11:30 a.m. Friday with Malik Yakini, a founder and executive director of The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
  • “Food Sovereignty as a social movement strategy of struggle,” 4-4:30 p.m. Friday, with Peter Rosset, global alternatives associate at the Center for the Study of the Americas, researcher at the Center for the Study of Rural Change in Mexico, co-coordinator of the Land Research Action Network, visiting research scientist at U-M, and staff member of La Via Campesina.

The U-M Detroit Center, 3663 Woodward Ave., will host a session from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday that will precede the conference: “Connecting the movements: Food sovereignty in Detroit and the Global South.”

Vandermeer says that before La Via Campesina, the narrative on food in the developed world centered on subjects including food security, market access of the poor to quality food. This included the identification of food deserts, such as geographic areas in Detroit where access to such food is lacking.

“They’ve replaced this discussion with the overarching theme of food sovereignty; that local communities have the right to decide what is produced, and how it’s produced,” Vandermeer says.

Perfecto says organizers are hoping to elevate the intellectual discussion on food sovereignty by having in-depth analyses of how ecological and health aspects can be articulated within the food sovereignty discussion.

“We are hoping to make stronger connections between the academic and the activist community and engage in more cross-fertilization of ideas, a kind of dialogue among different kinds of knowledge,” she says.

The event is made possible by a Michigan Meetings grant from the Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

Originally featured in The University Record

Food Systems Work Featured in LSA Magazine (Spring 2015)


Students led the charge for a new minor focused on sustainable food, eager for a fresh entry point into one of the massive issues of our day.

By Matt Nelson
April 1, 2015

“You really can’t quarrel with the relevance of food.”

So says Gregg Crane, the director of LSA’s Program in the Environment (PitE), which last fall launched a new minor in Sustainable Food Systems. That Crane is also an English professor specializing in American literary and intellectual history speaks to an idea at the very core of both the program and what has come to be called “the food minor.”

“The push of the minor is toward the interdisciplinary study of food and food issues in relation to the environment,” says Crane. “The food topic gets studied from the natural sciences side, social sciences side, and humanities side. And we built it because students asked us to.”

PitE already offers a minor in sustainability, but—jokes about students’ hunger for knowledge aside—part of the reason they were so interested in a food minor, Crane believes, is a matter of scale.

“The environmental crisis is so massive and so difficult that one response is to put your head in the sand and do nothing,” he explains. “But if I narrow the thing down to a very concrete topic like sustainable food production, I can get my head around that. Sustainability as a concept is useful, but as a topic of study, it’s just far too broad and amorphous to capture students’ interest in quite the way that I think concrete things like food do.”

Finding a narrower avenue through which to approach such a daunting topic hardly limits the impact students can have, however.


The Sustainable Food Systems minor is designed to stress that the isue is not just local or national, but one that spans the globe. Faculty members have current food research projects based in Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil and India.

“One of the things I love about studying this,” says senior Meredith Witt, a PitE major on track to be one of the first to graduate with the new minor, “is that when you’re taking a food class, you’re talking about so many different issues.”

For example, Crane relates the story of how one student taught him that there is carbon trapped in the earth through organic processes that gets released simply through the act of tilling land, a standard agricultural practice. Exploring and promoting methods of no-till farming, then, could significantly lessen the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. And that’s just one way sustainable food is linked to sustainability on a grander scale.

Taking the Initiative

John Vandermeer (Ph.D. ’68), a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) who has been involved in research and teaching food-and agriculture-related topics for more than 40 years, stresses that link between food and the environment.

“In my opinion, there are two issues of the day,” he says. “One is climate change, and one is agriculture. And it’s not just that the climate is going to affect our agriculture in negative ways, which is true, but it’s also that the industrial agricultural system is contributing to the problem of climate change.”

Vandermeer is one of numerous professors from across the University who, with students, came together to form the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. The initiative looks to “learn from and build food systems that are health-promoting, economically viable, equitable, and ecologically sound.” In 2012, the provost’s office approved their proposal for a cluster hire on sustainable food systems, and four new faculty have since been added in EEB, the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and the School of Public Health.

“Three of the new hires are teaching a foundational course together that’s part of the minor, and it had a wait list,” says Ivette Perfecto, a professor in SNRE who also helped to form the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. “They got about 50 students in that course, and they had to turn people down.”

Growing Enthusiasm

Perfecto points to a few reasons why she thinks there is so much interest in the topic now.

“Several things have happened,” she explains. “Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma really had a strong impact popularizing the interest in where your food comes from. Then writers like Mark Bittman in the New York Times and the food crisis in 2008 put the topic in the news in general. And then there’s the growth of urban agriculture in many cities, including Detroit—which is one of the main cities where we’re seeing a boom. Students are seeing that and getting interested.”


Part laboratory, part classroom, the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens connects students with nature and provides delicious lessons in small-scale food production.

The demand for the food minor is only one testament to that awareness. A number of student groups have emerged in recent years at U-M, ranging from the thriving Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens to organizations like Michigan Bees. The activity and activism suggest a more holistic approach to healthy food that’s as much about “you are what you eat” as it is about “you reap what you sow.”

“The Campus Farm gives me the chance for hands-on projects and research,” says Witt, who after graduation is hoping to teach environmental education classes using school gardens as a resource. “For bio classes, you’re going to your bio lab. The Campus Farm, that’s the food lab.”

“Ivette and I talked for so many years about why we didn’t have a student garden at the University of Michigan and how we needed to start a student farm,” says Vandermeer. “Well, suddenly it happened, and we had nothing to do with it. We really have to acknowledge the student input on this whole thing. They’re doing an absolutely wonderful job.”

Photos by Sarah Schwimmer

Originally featured in the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine