Meeting the Future: Food Systems

Changing the Game in Agriculture and Access

Feeding the growing human population in a sustainable fashion requires transforming food systems to be health-promoting, economically viable, equitable, and ecologically sound. Solving this challenge involves tackling issues around food production systems, food security, and food sovereignty at local, national, and global scales. The SEAS community responds by generating food security for human needs.

Food Literacy for All

Launched in 2017, Food Literacy for All is an innovative course that is co-designed and co-taught by a team of U-M faculty and staff and community leaders in Detroit. Structured as an evening lecture series, the course features different guest speakers each week to address diverse challenges and opportunities of both domestic and global food systems. By bringing in national and global leaders, the program aims to ignite new conversations and deepen existing commitments to building more equitable, health-promoting, and ecologically sustainable food systems. The course is free and open to the public.
As community co-instructor Malik Yakini put it, “One of the most significant aspects of the Food Literacy for All course is that it modeled what a university-community partnership can look like.”
For most U-M students, Food Literacy for All is the only time in their academic career that they will sit in class next to farmers, nonprofit professionals, chefs, and other community members.
The list of Detroit-based community partners has grown each year, and now includes: Oakland Avenue Farm, the Detroit Food Policy Council, Food Lab Detroit, and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.  This past winter, nearly 150 undergraduate and graduate students took the course for credit—the largest enrollment yet. Over 1,400 community members have attended the course since 2017.
Food Literacy for All was conceived and put into motion by Sustainable Food Systems Initiative program manager Lilly Fink Shapiro—who also designed and facilitates the popular Fast Food for Thought annual event, which brings 10 interdisciplinary faculty members from across campus to give a series of short (five-minute) talks on topics relating to food, agriculture, and diets.

Meal Kits

Home-delivered meal kits contain pre-portioned—and sometimes partially prepared food ingredients and recipes—that allow consumers to easily prepare meals in their own kitchen. But what is their impact on the environment?

"I have a number of friends who really like ordering meal kits, but kept expressing guilt over all of the packaging,” said Shelie Miller, associate professor in Sustainable Systems and director of the undergraduate Program in the Environment (PitE). “The more I heard people assume that meal kits had to be terrible for the environment, the more I felt compelled to do a study that analyzed the whole system. I suspected that meal kits could actually be better for the environment. Due to the overall amount of food waste Americans generate at home, pre-portioned meal kits might actually combat food loss. Turned out my suspicion was right."

Brent Heard, a doctoral candidate in Resource Policy and Behavior at SEAS, became lead author of the study, published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, which Miller co-authored.

"Meal kits allow consumers to circumvent the grocery store retailing process, which reduces retail food loss and emissions from store retailing,” said Heard. “Meal kit delivery also optimizes the final ‘last-mile’ transportation of meals to the customer. And it is clear that pre-portioned ingredients (like those in meal kits) result in less food waste generated by a household."

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Beyond The Carbon Hoofprint

Beyond Meat’s “Beyond Burger” is marketed as “the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks and tastes like fresh ground beef.” The company also points to the low carbon footprint of its products—compared to the heavy load of beef production.

Dr. Martin Heller, research specialist at the Center for Sustainable Systems, conducted a rigorous, peer-reviewed life cycle assessment to quantify the environmental impact of the production of the Beyond Burger through its distribution to retailers. His study found that compared to a ¼ lb. of U.S. beef, producing a ¼ lb. Beyond Burger requires:

  • 99% less impact on water scarcity
  • 93% less impact on land use
  • 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions
  • Nearly 50% less energy

"It’s exciting to see the growth in plant-based alternatives to meat as over half of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with diets in the U.S.  are due to meat production.  Reducing the impact of our diets is climate action that is accessible to everyone because we all decide on a daily basis what we eat,” Heller said.

Heller’s study was recently highlighted in The New York Times  “Quiz of the Week.”

Linking Poultry Farming With Antibiotic Resistance

Rural communities in developing countries often adopt small-scale poultry farming as a means of income and source of protein. But the unintended consequence may be an increased antibiotic resistance in humans who consume broiler chickens that have been fed antibiotics.

Researchers conducted their two-year observational study in rural northwestern Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

"Our findings provide evidence that small-scale meat production operations have direct impacts on the spread and selection of clinically important antibiotics among underdeveloped settings," said lead author and SEAS doctoral student Hayden Hedman.

The research, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, is part of EcoDess, a larger, longitudinal study led by Joseph Eisenberg, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health.

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