New scholarly focus needed to help solve global food crisis, U-M experts say

July 23, 2018
Jim Erickson

ANN ARBOR—The global food system is unsustainable and urgently needs an overhaul. Yet current approaches to finding solutions through applied academic research are too narrow and treat the food system as a collection of isolated components within established disciplines such as agronomy, sociology or nutritional science.

What’s needed is a truly interdisciplinary approach that views all elements of the food system as part of a single, comprehensive framework, according to a group of 12 University of Michigan faculty members who issued a call to the global academic community July 23 in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

The researchers, who are part of U-M’s fledgling Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, urged colleagues worldwide to adopt a new scholarly focus for food-system studies, calling it an “urgently needed transformation.”

“A global system that leaves millions food-insecure while contributing to obesity, that generates significant environmental degradation, and that compromises the well-being of consumers and producers alike challenges the research community to ask new research questions and apply novel analytical frameworks for analyzing them,” the U-M researchers concluded.

“Such a paradigm would inform new, transdisciplinary, and high-impact research questions that will help re-route the food system toward a path of environmental, social, and economic sustainability,” they wrote.

The U-M’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative was formed through a cluster hire of young faculty members that was part of a $30 million initiative announced in 2007 by former U-M President Mary Sue Coleman to recruit scholars whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries.

The sustainable food systems cluster hire added new faculty to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the School for Environment and Sustainability, the School of Public Health, and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The initiative is led by several senior U-M ecologists including John Vandermeer, who described the group’s Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems article as a manifesto of sorts.

“This group of faculty emerged from the cluster that the U-M gave us six years ago, which has really taken off and which now has a life of its own,” Vandermeer said of the Sustainable Food System Initiative. “Although each faculty member has her or his own research program, all of us are united in the realization that an interdisciplinary approach is needed to solve this urgent world problem.

“In addition to research and teaching, the Sustainable Food System Initiative acts as a sort of think tank to provide analysis about issues of food and agriculture. This article is an example of our outreach work.”

In their Frontiers article, the researchers propose a new analytical framework for the study of the global food system that lies at the intersection of four topics: the ecology of agroecosystems, equity in global and local food systems, the cultural dimensions of food and agriculture, and human health. They summarize the importance of each of the four research foci:

  • Agricultural ecology is now considered a major component of the natural science of ecology, yet it’s often given short shrift in the design of agricultural production systems, according to the authors. A broader focus on managing ecological interactions on farms would reduce the negative environmental consequences of agriculture.
  • Equity issues are essential to solving several food crises. Poor access to healthy, diverse, affordable food is the crux of food insecurity worldwide. One of the current system’s “starkest contradictions” is the abundance of food while millions remain food-insecure: While the world produces enough edible calories to feed more than 9 billion people, 815 million people were chronically undernourished in 2016.
  • Human cultures. Globalization has generated a tendency toward diet homogenization based on the Western diet, often with adverse health consequences. The concomitant reduction in food diversity and in some cultures “points to a crisis of democracy evident in contemporary food systems,” the U-M researchers wrote.
  • Human health. Across the globe, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and other diet-related diseases are top contributors to lost years of healthy life and are responsible for an enormous socioeconomic burden. “Linking global public health to the kind, quality and availability of food is an essential part of the new paradigm” for food-system research, they wrote.

The 12 authors of the Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems paper are Vandermeer, Jacob Allgeier, Catherine Badgley and Regina Baucom of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Aniket Aga, Jennifer Blesh, Meha Jain and Ivette Perfecto of the School for Natural Resources and Environment; Lilly Fink Shapiro, Andrew Jones and Mark Wilson of the School of Public Health; and Lesli Hoey of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

More information:

March 26th – Aniket Aga speaks on Genetically Modified Crops

Science, Technology, and Society Speaker Series

Monday, March 26, 2018

4:00-5:30 PM
1014 Tisch Hall
free & open to the public

Bureaucratic Epistemes and Regulatory Disputes: Genetically Modified (GM) Crops between Science and Legal-Administration

Aniket Aga, PhD

University of Michigan
School for Environment and SustainabilityA fierce controversy surrounding the question of allowing commercial release of GM food crops, has been raging in India for nearly a decade. While the controversy concerns far-reaching issues of food security, food sovereignty, consumers’ choice, farmers’ livelihoods and ecological impacts, these are articulated in government policymaking via bureaucratic routines and documents. In this talk, I examine the regulatory regime overseeing GM crops in India, instituted in the late 1980s, to argue that two epistemes – scientific and legal-administrative – are fused in its design. By unraveling the course of two regulatory disputes, I suggest that an inherent ambiguity is lodged between scientific and legal-administrative modes of documentation, as facts generated in one register can be challenged by those registered in the other. I demonstrate that this ambiguity both fosters and constrains democratic participation and scrutiny over government policymaking, with deeply ambivalent implications.Presented with Support from the College of LSA and the Department of History 

ANTHRARC 296 section 101- Cities Growing Food: The Archaeology of Urban Agriculture and Sustainability

Spring 2018
T/Th 1-4
Instructor: Chelsea Fisher,

There is an agricultural revolution happening around the world – an urban agricultural revolution. Urban farms and gardens are a vital part of a larger movement towards community sustainability because they provide greater access to locally produced, healthier foods while simultaneously “greening” urban landscapes. However, it is critical that our approaches to any aspect of sustainability adopt a long-term perspective if they are going to be effective. Archaeology – the study of past human cultures through the physical objects they left behind – provides a window into the kind of long-term perspective that sustainability demands. This class examines how the practices of past civilizations can inform modern strategies of sustainable urban agriculture and food security. We will discuss the innovations, technologies, and spatial and social organization of ancient agricultural societies, paying special attention to societies that successfully mixed urban settlement with farms and gardens for centuries. At the same time, we will pursue a parallel thread that traces modern urban agriculture and sustainability initiatives in cities of the 21st century. Students will lead discussions linking these modern initiatives to ancient precursors and think critically about the relevance (or irrelevance) of those ancient strategies to city-dwellers of today. Our principal objective throughout the term will be to search out and develop intersections between urban sustainability and food security of the past and present. The instructor and students will together elaborate points of potential application and work towards solutions to two critical questions: how can we adapt the lessons of past societies for a more sustainable future? And, perhaps even more importantly, how can we accessibly communicate scientific data and sustainable strategies to the public?

Structured as an evening lecture series, Food Literacy for All features different guest speakers each week to address diverse challenges and opportunities of both domestic and global food systems. Food Literacy for All (Environ 305 and EAS 639.038, 2 credits) is a community-academic partnership course at the University of Michigan.

As a former professional chef in fine dining restaurants, Dr. Julia Wolfson (SPH) studies how food preparation, eating behaviors, and policy affect diet and health. Dr. Wolfson’s recent study about sodium in restaurant meals made headlines.

Julia Wolfson | Assistant Professor, School of Public Health

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

My work focuses on both food outside the home (including neighborhoods, restaurants and other food environments), and inside the home, specifically home cooking. Through this lens, my research focuses on environmental, cultural, and social determinants of diet quality and health.

Recently, I have focused on the way people perceive the meaning of cooking, what it means to cook in today’s food system, and how we measure this kind of behavior. What we have found is that in the current food system the kind of food available on supermarket shelves impacts how people understand what it means to cook. When you ask people, “how often do you cook dinner?” the interpretation of that question varies considerably and, for many people includes highly processed convenience foods that are ubiquitous in the food environment. People point to home cooking as a way of inspiring dietary change, although for a lot of people not being able to cook or a lack of confidence in their cooking ability is a significant barrier to changing their diet. Consideration of cooking skills and behavior, in addition to structural issues around food access and affordability is important to make change in consumption behavior and creating a sustainable food system.

What is a project you are excited to work on?

I’m very excited about an upcoming project that will examine food preparation and procurement practices among low-income adults in Michigan who are pre-diabetic. This study will yield rich qualitative data about challenges people face in their daily food preparation and strategies they use to overcome such challenges. I am particularly excited about this because most research about cooking skills and behavior is based on self report, and in this study we will be directly observing participants cooking. Ultimately, this work will inform the development of targeted cooking skills interventions.

What does your grandiose vision for a more equitable, healthy and sustainable food system look like?

I hope that our society can enact policies to help to make healthy, sustainable, ethically produced foods, more affordable, accessible and desirable. Everyone should have access to kind of ‘good’ food, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they make. I envision the healthy, sustainable food choice the easiest choice to make. While this vision seems far away right now, just imagine if we had a food system that primarily produced food that is good for the environment, good for food system workers, good for the local economy, and was also good for the people who consume those foods!

For many people, food choices are based on taste preferences that begin in childhood and are developed over time. Given the daily burden of putting food on the table day in and day out for one’s self and one’s family, the need to prepare food (or not prepare it), is, for many, driven by whatever is the easiest, most affordable, and fastest options available. Smart food policies and widespread individual behavior change will both be needed to make a healthy, sustainable food system a reality.

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

“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain was hugely influential on me. I read it before I started working in restaurants, and thought to myself, “now that’s the life for me!” I read it again after working in the NYC restaurant scene for a few years and it really holds up! Now that I’ve been out of the restaurant business for a few years I really miss it sometimes. When I do, I watch Chef’s Table or Top Chef (my guilty pleasure food show). On a more serious note, I’m particularly looking forward to the upcoming book “Making Modern Meals” by Amy Trubek , who is a friend and colleague. The book has just been released and will discuss home cooking and its history in this country.

What is a strong food memory?

My parents were good cooks and cooked all the time. I recall my dad tormenting me by cooking ‘bunny’ (rabbit stew) during a phase when I refused to eat “cute” animals. My parents used make a simple roast chicken with roasted potatoes, lots of garlic, rosemary and pine nuts in a white wine sauce. Pinenut chicken, as we called it, was a frequent staple of our dinner table and I still make it to this day. Whenever I make it, I’m reminded of family meals from my childhood! It was simple, delicious, my parents made it well (and often), and everyone in my family loved it.  

Upcoming Courses

  • US Food Policy and Public Health (HMP 617), Winter 2018
  • In Winter 2019, there will be a new food system course for undergraduate public health majors


Disability Justice for Detroit Farms and Gardens
Nov 16, 2017
UM Detroit Center

Join the UM Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and the Detroit Food Policy Council for a panel discussion on why and how Detroit farm and gardens should be inclusive and accessible to all.