University of Vermont

Seed-to-Plate: How the University of Vermont is Cultivating Food Systems as an Academic Discipline

via Reuters

I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. Hungry for change.

We can't live without food - so we better get started solving our food issue before it eats us alive. At colleges and universities, we are in a unique position: We can plant the seeds for a sustainable economic future by growing food systems as a transdisciplinary academic area. For us, a systems-based approach is new, novel - and necessary.

It's complicated because food is complicated. It touches every aspect of our lives - on an intimate and global level. Our kitchens are where we nurture ourselves and our families. Our global economy is fueled by food, as is our US economy where food represents $1 trillion in annual sales, 13 percent of the gross national product, and 17 percent of our workforce.

But, despite remarkable growth, our relationship with food is suffering. As Wendell Berry said, we've become a nation of industrial eaters. We've divorced ourselves from our food and where it comes from. The results of this shift are profound and epitomized by loss - the loss of local cultures, histories and identities - and present us with some of our most urgent societal issues: climate change, energy, economics, health, and ecology.

Consider that:

- Worldwide agriculture and land-use change are estimated to cause about one-third of global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions;

- The US food system accounts for an estimated 10.5 percent of the nation's energy use and 19 percent of its fossil fuel consumption;

- 67 percent of adults age 20 and above are overweight, 34 percent are obese (CDC 2008). America has a public health crisis related to overweight/obesity and associated chronic diseases - most alarming is the epidemic in children;

- Food-borne illness affects an estimated 76 million people each year (CDC 2005); and

- In 2005, the US Department of Agriculture reported finding detectable pesticide residues in 73 percent of fresh fruit and vegetable samples and 61 percent of processed fruit and vegetable samples.

Though our modern food system provides unparalleled productivity, it is accompanied by diet-related health problems, food-borne disease, hunger and agricultural pollution.

We know the problems. Now, it's time for solutions. To go big, we must think small, yet broad.

Our approach - and UVM's approach - must be to offer a transdisciplinary education that emphasizes regionally-scaled food systems. We already see a lot of activity taking place in pockets nationwide. Here in Vermont, I think of the Vermont Cheese Council, Vermont Fresh Network, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and the Farm-to-Plate initiative, to name just a few. We must harness the passion and energy around these activities and channel it into a model for the future. Revitalizing agriculture will improve people's diet, protect environmental quality, and create economic opportunity.

At UVM, our focus is on 1) food, culture and health; 2) energy and food; 3) policy, ecology, and land use; and 4) regional food chains.

Within those foci, we've already:

- Launched a Farmer Apprentice Program, an entrepreneurial approach to small-scale farming, that provides new farmers with the academic and practical knowledge necessary to pursue a career in agriculture. We're extremely pleased to work with local Vermont farmers on this program.

- Seeded food systems knowledge in the undergraduate experience, from classroom to dining hall and beyond. Students benefit from courses like Environmental Cooking, VT Rural Food Systems and NYC Urban Food Systems (through a partnership with New York University). We also offer a weeklong summer intensive focused on food systems as well as summer science courses for undergrads.

- Partnered with more than 100 faculty and 400 community partners who are engaging with models and methods that show promise.

This is the start of something very powerful.

At UVM, we're lucky to be in the ideal place for exploration of a healthy regional food system - the state of Vermont. We have a history of challenging "business as usual" assumptions and facing up against a tough environment: varied topography, harsh climate, and limited infrastructure. Our citizens and our visitors value food and farming: We lead the nation in per capita in direct-market sales from farms to consumers. Demand for local, sustainable, and fair trade food production has recently increased. This is seen in the growth of organic food industry at a rate of about 20 percent per year.

We've started the problem-solving by placing our academic knowledge on the table. I welcome other academic institutions to the challenge. We can lead in the study of how humans in their environment obtain nourishment with a holistic approach that considers everything from microbes found in compost facilities to global trade agreements.

Let's get started.