Sonia Heckler

agriculture, climate, environment

Month: December 2016

Research Update

For more on my research and how it fits into the global food system, see my presentation here.

What values are in the food system?

The food system is global in its reach and complicated to untangle. Within the global economy, food processors and producers have consolidated into a few centralized corporations. Values of profit and mass production are often prioritized over non-market values of equity, sustainability and nutrition. However, this paradigm has lead to an imbalance in the system. The production and distribution of food is not equitable. Because of this imbalance, non-market values need to be included in the food system.

The first important value is equity. It needs to be applied across all areas of the food system: for the farm workers, consumers without access to safe, healthy food and farms of all sizes to survive economically (Hesterman 2011). Equally important is the value of ecological integrity (Hesterman 2011). In order to include this value, the biodiversity and sustainability of food production as well as human health need to be taken into account.

What has largely been ignored in the current food system is the nutrition level of the food. The value of nutrition has been sacrificed for greater production. Rather than focusing solely on maximizing amount of production, the food system should also focus on increasing the nutrient value of the food grown (Weis 2013). In doing so, more consumers will have access to healthier food.

These values can be incorporated everyday through the choices we make about what to eat and where to purchase it. By understanding that we are actively participating in the food system, we can begin to change the values that drive it. The equity and sustainability of the food system are critical for future generations. Changing the food system is not a simple task, but it is critical to improving the health of our communities and future generations.

What values would you include in the food system? What steps would need to be taken to include these values in the food system?



Hesterman, O. 2011: Fair Food: Growing A Healthy Sustainable Food System. Public Affairs. New York.

Weis, T. 2013: The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock. Zed Books. London.

Agriculture in the Environment

Agriculture is inherently part of the natural environment. There is no getting around the fact that crops need soil, sunlight, water and air to grow. Agriculture is vulnerable to changes in weather and climate. Not only is agriculture part of the environment, it impacts the environment changing the way in which it functions. Conventional agriculture increases soil erosion, depletes the soil’s nutrients and increases the salinity of the soil. Fertilizer runoff increases freshwater pollution and puts excess nutrients into the ocean (Hesterman 2011). Agriculture impacts air quality through increased particulate matter, ozone and pesticide drift (Chase 2014). Agriculture also contributes to climate change emitting 30% of all greenhouse gases. Agriculture emits 50% of all methane and 70% of all nitrous oxide, two of the most potent greenhouse gases (Neff 2015). Because agriculture reaches across all scales of the environment and touches all the important resources and ecosystem services, current agricultural practices raise some important questions about the equity, health and cultural impacts of the system. The current system can only be sustained for so long before it hits the upper limit of the environmental system on which it relies. The main focus of the current system is profit, not sustainability. This focus creates ripple effects as many of the negative environmental effects are felt by those without the ability to address them.

Several alternatives to conventional production have been suggested. The most well known alternative is organic. By getting the organic certification, farms are agreeing not to use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers toxic to the environment. While organic addresses some of the issues with conventional agriculture, it leaves out a whole host of agricultural practices that lower the environmental impact of agriculture. Some of these practices include planting buffer zones along streams to prevent erosion, provide habitat and filter nutrients out of runoff. To protect the soil from erosion, farmers will forgo tilling and plant directly in the ground (Neff 2015). They may also plant different types of crops in each row to minimize wind erosion and balance soil nutrients. Finally, planting cover crops when land is not in production also helps to protect the soil (Neff 2015). In response to the limits of the current organic agriculture program, two alternative farming systems have been suggested: sustainable agriculture and agroecology (Neff 2015). Sustainable agriculture takes into account improving the environmental quality and maintaining agriculture production into the future while providing nutritious food. Agroecology takes principals of ecology and applies them so that agriculture mimics the natural environmental system (Neff 2015).

Ultimately agriculture will need to take many of the above principles into account in order to address the challenges facing it with reduced soil quality and climate change. Many farmers are using technology to use less water and become more resilient to environmental changes. While the future is uncertain, it presents an opportunity to incorporate more conservation and sustainable solutions into the food system.


Chase, L., Grubinger, V. 2014: Food, Farms and Community: Exploring the Food Systems. University Press. New England.

Hesterman, O. 2011: Fair Food: Growing A Healthy Sustainable Food System. Public Affairs. New York.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

© 2017 Sonia Heckler

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑