Faculty Spotlight: Catherine Badgley

Catherine Badgley | Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Residential College, and Research Scientist, Museum of Paleontology

Date: February 2017

Catherine Badgley is a member of the advisory board of the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative and perhaps most well known for the seminal article she co-authored about Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply.  She is a vertebrate paleontologist, ecologist, bread baker, farmer/gardener, bee-keeper, and a tireless activist for a better food system and world.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Pennsylvania, but I grew up along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and then Colorado. I went to high school in Bethesda, MD and attended graduate school in New England.  

Photo: Lilly Fink Shapiro

What is your strongest food memory?

When I was nine years old, my mother took our family to live in Brussels for the summer. Each day, I would walk to the corner bakery early in the morning and buy fresh rolls for my family. I fell in love with the smell and crackle of the rolls, and I still love the smell almost more than the taste of freshly baked bread.

Have any particular authors, articles or documentaries had a significant impact on you? Which one(s)?

Wes Jackson—His work to reinvent grain agriculture based on ecological principles in native ecosystems is demonstrating that fundamental changes are possible.

Wendell Berry—His writing illuminates connections between the agrarian lifestyle and community impacts.

Richard Levins—He was a wise ecologist with a deep understanding of ecology and politics.

Frances Moore Lappé—”Diet for a Small Planet” was the first book to alert me to big myths in the industrial food system, and her vision and energy have remained an inspiration.

What are you currently reading?

“The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health” by David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, which describes the relevance of microbes to soil health and human health. The book critically links agricultural impacts on microbes to food quality to the human microbiome and the immune system.   

In what ways does your work relate to sustainable food systems?

As a vertebrate paleontologist, I’m interested in ecosystems of the past and how assemblages of mammals have changed in relation to environmental change. My lifelong fascination with biodiversity connects me to an interest in food systems. Today, the global declines in biodiversity are happening largely due to agricultural practices and our vast consumption of animal products. We need to transform the food system to become more sustainable in order to avert another mass extinction.


Tell me about your current research interests.

In terms of food systems, I’m interested in biodiversity-friendly agricultural practices and the environmental impacts of food production.

In 1990, my husband and I purchased a farm near Chelsea. We wanted to understand the skills and effort needed to grow food organically, including how to live with the predators present in native ecosystems. Living in a farming community, I’m able to have candid discussions with other farmers about the challenges, stresses, and opportunities they are facing.

I’ve learned that if we are going to make fundamental changes in the food system, then we need to focus on access to food more than agricultural yields and change policies that are perpetuating the industrial food system. These changes would have tremendous ripple effects.

Do you have any advice for students interested in food-system careers?

Understanding the food system requires many different kinds of knowledge; I recommend courses in ecology, agroecology, and an introduction to food systems, so that students acquire a grounded understanding of the breadth of the food system. Finding an internship, research project, or volunteer activity on a farm or with a non-profit group that is supporting local food systems will allow students to see the challenges and opportunities present in the food system. Finally, it is important that students understand the social and political aspects of the food system as much as the ecology of growing food.

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not researching/teaching/working?

Outside—tending my half-acre garden, small orchard, honeybees, or chickens. I have some ongoing projects in creative writing. Also, I try to travel to one new place every year.

What classes are you teaching in the 2016/2017 school year?

In the fall, I was a part of a faculty team teaching BIO 110: Introduction to Global Change–The Science of Sustainability and EEB 477: Field Ecology. During the winter term, I am teaching EEB 435: Biogeography and an experiential course (RCNSCI 300.001) called Alternative Futures in the Michigan Food System.