A US land grant university is pioneering a systems approach to transformation of food and agricultural systems for the common good.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The land grant university system in the United States of America was established at a time when the food security challenge was to ensure that farmers could produce enough to feed a growing and expanding nation. The Ohio State University is a land grant institution, with a long tradition of supporting the citizens of the State of Ohio, the nation and the world with research, education and outreach that solves society’s most pressing challenges. Agricultural research over the last century, by Ohio State and many other land grant universities, has led to astounding gains in agricultural productivity. Food security, however, is still a profound challenge in Ohio and the world. One in seven families in Ohio struggle with keeping a healthy diet on the table, and one in five children frequently experience hunger. Our University, and in particular the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation, takes seriously the responsibility of being a public university for the public good in finding the means to achieve just, sustainable, and resilient food security. We engage, lead, inspire and catalyze a wide range of partners in industry, government, NGO’s and other public and private colleges and universities, toward this end. Although our work has national and global significance, the State of Ohio is our first responsibility. If we can transform food and agricultural systems in ways that work for both producers and consumers in Ohio, then we can demonstrate and share how to do so with the rest of the world through international networks. Ohio is the place in which we focus our vision first, our testbed, and our responsibility.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Crop Data Layer image of Ohio showing the dominant land cover as soybeans, corn, grass/pasture, forest, and developed land, despite the fact that many other crops are grown in Ohio.
Ohio is both an ecological and social zone of convergence. Its diverse landscape has been shaped by glaciers that filled ancient river beds with some of the most fertile glacial till to be found anywhere, and divided the land between the two largest watersheds in the US, the Ohio River and Mississippi to the south and the Great Lakes to the north. It straddles four major ecoregions, and includes plant communities as diverse as taiga remnants that were left by the glaciers and southern Appalachian species left by ancient river systems. The result is a landscape that includes a wide variety of unique ecosystems and the potential for a very diverse agriculture.
People have lived in Ohio for over 12,000 years, with long-term settlements by the Adena (800-100 BCE) and Hopewell (100 BCE – 400 AD) peoples. Starting about 800 AD, the land was shared among at least eight nations that included both Iroquois and Algonquian speakers, most of whom moved (or were moved) west to Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in the early 1800’s. The Great Lakes, great rivers, canals, railroads (including the underground railroad, which ended with freedom once across the Ohio river) and highways brought a convergence of cultures from around the world, a convergence that continues today.
Canal and railroad eras made Ohio a melting pot for Eurasian immigrants. Both the underground railroad and the 20th century great migration from the Southern US to industrial cities in the North brought Ohioans of African descent. Current immigrant populations in Ohio’s cities and rural areas include South Asian (Nepal, Buurma) African (Ethiopia, Somalia) and Latino populations into the rich cultural mix.
Ohio currently is the seventh most populous state in the nation but is spread across a relatively uniform distribution of urban centers ringed with rural land. This patchwork of rural and urban, connected by highways, provides abundant opportunities for a reimagined agricultural landscape, in which rural and urban agriculture, local and global supply chains, rich and varied food cultures can be integrated and balanced.
But despite this abundant diversity in both social and ecological terms, Ohio does not appear particularly diverse from space. The attached image is the National Agricultural Statistics Service crop data layer. Despite a long list of crops that are produced in Ohio, over the past few decades the landscape has been dominated by 5 things: corn and soybeans (NW side of State), grassland and forests (SE side of State), and developed land (in gray). Much more diversity has characterized Ohio in the past, and could characterize this land again.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Global food security, “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” (WHO 1996) has never been attained and progress towards it has slowed. Technologies strain to balance humanity’s dietary demands, profit’s motivating force, and the planet’s limited resources, challenging food security even as policies struggle to balance complex local and global economic and social needs. Yet the US farm bill perpetually generates intense controversy over commodity subsidies and food assistance. Advances in agricultural production have produced huge increases in crop yields, but have required intensive synthetic inputs and have reached a point of diminishing returns. Recent decades have seen soil loss and land use changes that limit our ability to sustain current yields, especially under a changing climate. Food production has become quite specialized and centralized into production regions with potentially fragile distribution networks creating global interdependencies. Finding the optimal balance in local, regional and global scales of food production and distribution is one of the greatest political, economic, and cultural challenges of our era. The interrelated nature of all these elements exacerbates the challenge to future food production and security.
Currently in Ohio, as in much of the US and the rest of the world, 13% of households are food insecure while 34% of adults are obese, another form of malnutrition. In addition, the production and distribution of food causes a number of unintended environmental problems, including degradation of soil, air, and water quality. Farmers are increasingly open to implementing practices to assure long-term sustainability of their farms and communities, but cannot bear the full costs of doing so under current economic constraints. In brief, there is an urgent need for redesign and transformation throughout the food supply chain.
The food system of 2050 faces uncertain but more profound challenges. Climate change predictions are uncertain. If anything, climate change seems to be proceeding more quickly than originally predicted while current steps toward mitigation have been entirely inadequate to avoid the more extreme predicted scenarios. Population growth and dietary preferences also are quite unpredictable for that timeframe despite the oft-repeated 9 or 10 billion global population projection. Fairly safe predictions, however, are that growing conditions will be more challenging (hotter, wetter when and where it’s wet, drier when and where it’s dry), that coastlines will change putting a lot of currently productive land under water, and that populations will increase in many places due to either population increase or migration and dispersal of climate refugees. Ohio is predicted to gain both rainfall and population, as people leave flooded coastal regions and seek higher ground inland. None of this is going to make food security any easier.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
The future of humanity depends upon addressing three critical dimensions of the food security challenge: 1) food system technologies and enterprises must function within agroecological capacities and limits; 2) economic gain and social justice must be balanced to assure healthy food for all; and 3) the physical design and social organization of food systems must be locally adapted, globally interconnected, and equally grounded in culture, technology and science.
The Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) of The Ohio State University will design and model food systems that balance ecology, economy, technology, and culture, to promote the overall well-being of people, animals and the natural environment. InFACT will catalyze transformation to vibrant, sustainable and resilient agriculture that places nourishing food at the center of just and vital communities in Ohio and beyond. Our vision is rooted in new modes of thinking and acting together, addressing historic injustices and assuring fundamental fairness, open dialogue and collaboration, and a balance between indigenous knowledge and scientific discovery to honor diverse sources of knowing and working together.
The transformation we envision will require a collaboration across the sciences, engineering, and humanities, and a willingness to engage multiple partners in the work. Food has many different values, the basis for cultures. To imagine and create new food agri/cultures, we think deeply about the language, imagery and sense of place food systems represent in a dramatically changing world, with new food and agri/cultural values expressed as a new coupling of human and natural systems, with new food, agroecosystem and culture connections. Our theory of change is built on the idea that the community (in the broadest sense from local to global) is the source for and crucible of our scholarship. Both problems and solutions are inherently present in the communities we serve, and our challenge is to engage with them to facilitate the discovery, or even rediscovery of those solutions. The outcomes and impacts that we seek extend from Ohio to global scales in food system transformation.
InFACT is coordinating and supporting the work of faculty from 10 colleges to: 1.) provide research-based transition pathways to new diversified agricultural landscapes that improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of both people and the land; 2.) research re-imagined food supply and value chains that balance local to global scales of getting food from production sources to where it can be accessed by consumers, in ways that maintain food security for those who have it and improve food security for those who don’t; 3.) closely examine and better understand food environments and cultures and how they shape dietary patterns and public health, to develop research-based transition pathways to dietary patterns that improve health.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Challenges will be met when new technologies promote the triple bottom line for diverse producers and processors, policy is influenced by science and culture, and people equitably share ecosystem services and food system benefits. The transformed system of food and agriculture in Ohio will be informed by innovations throughout the world, and emulated widely in the many places where production landscapes have become simplified and specialized with loss of environmental quality and food security.
Ohio agriculture will reflect the diversity of its ecosystems, with a large percentage of products consumed by Ohioans but enough surplus for active trade outside the region. Agricultural production will result in a net increase in soil C, mitigating climate change. The shift will have taken place through economic incentive in new supply chains helping farmers gain new markets, with abundant jobs and workforce in more circular economies and more people choosing to be involved with producing food as a way of life.
Supply chains connected with agriculture will be integrated across local to global scales, with transparency for consumers. Waste will be reduced from ca. 40% to near 0 throughout the supply chain, with most of the inedible portions of agricultural production being reclaimed for bio-based products or returned to agricultural lands to increase soil fertility and organic matter. Finally, supply chains will reach all citizens so that they have ready and affordable access to a varied, whole and fresh food supply that promotes health, from inner cities to the most rural areas, regardless of income levels.
Food culture will have evolved in Ohio, in ways that celebrate and maintain our rich cultural diversity and ethnic traditions but also with an explicit connection to the agricultural ecosystems that sustain us. The arts and literature, along with scientific research, will have people feeling differently about food as a foundation of a healthy and just society.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Hear InFACT Faculty Director Casey Hoy share our systems approach to transformation.
The Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) is a transdisciplinary program at The Ohio State University aimed at designing and implementing food systems that are sustainable, defined as achieving a balance of ecology, economy, technology, and culture, to promote the overall well-being of people, animals and the natural environment.
While achieving unprecedented levels of productivity, the food system in Ohio and across the country faces some major challenges. This system leaves many people without access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food, while others struggle with preventable and diet-related chronic diseases. In addition, the production and distribution of food causes a number of unintended environmental problems, including degradation of soil, air, and water quality. Farmers are increasingly open to implementing practices to assure long-term resilience, but cannot bear the full costs of doing so alone. In brief, there is an urgent need for redesign and transformation throughout the food supply chain. As one of the nation’s largest universities, with collaborations throughout the world, Ohio State is poised to pioneer new conceptual and physical models of food systems that promote health, while balancing technological, ecological, economic and social justice issues.
Ohio State, as a land grant university will catalyze transformation through the following strategies:
Transdisciplinary working groups will pursue an aggressive research agenda covering a broad range of food system issues with an eye to effecting meaningful and measurable change in Ohio and elsewhere.
A broad-based network of agriculture and food system players, both internal and external to Ohio State, will be engaged and supported to enhance collective communication, policy and action on behalf of comprehensive improvements in food and agricultural systems in Ohio and beyond. This network’s deliberations will also serve as input to the research agenda and workgroups. InFACT will implement practical strategies that enhance agriculture and food systems through a food systems clinic, engaging students, faculty and researchers, infused with scientific innovation and the imagination of the humanities and arts, as well as our external partners, whose experience will establish priorities, problems and latent solutions within the community.
To effect lasting change, InFACT’s work must operate at the junction of experience, innovation and imagination, starting with interdisciplinary integration of science, technology, and the arts and humanities, but going well beyond to a genuinely transdisciplinary inclusion of indigenous knowledge in framing questions and seeking answers. We define indigenous knowledge as stemming from the experience and shaped by the values of all people, particularly experience gained by seeking, producing, processing, distributing, preparing, and/or consuming food. Such knowledge can be relatively recent, as contained in the broad knowledge and experience of the communities we serve, or the kind of knowledge that comes from cultural traditions and understandings about ancient practices that come through disciplined studies of the past.
Our theory of change, unique to the strengths of Ohio State and the strategic approach described above, is built on the idea that the community (in the broadest sense from local to global) is the source for and crucible of our scholarship. This means that both the problems and the solutions are inherently present in the communities we serve, and our challenge is to facilitate the discovery, or even rediscovery of those solutions through genuine and constructive engagement with individuals and organizations in those communities.
We are building our research capacity in five key areas that are instrumental to the transformation we seek:
Agriculture, natural resources and ecosystem services on which our food supply depend are critical for ensuring food security. The problem is not primarily crop yields or even the amount of land in production; rather it is the number of people healthfully fed per acre that is a more accurate and rarely used metric for the efficiency of agricultural production with respect to food security. A resilient agriculture and food system would also feature diversity at all scales, both in terms of what is produced and who is producing. Furthermore, a sustainable food supply depends on existing and renewable natural resources, and the ingenuity of people in managing them.
Nutrition and health are determined by the nutrient density and diversity of food at least as much as the number of calories available. Hunger and/or malnutrition result from a diet insufficient in quantity or quality, or both. Furthermore, food and its effects on physical health cannot be separated from a wide range of behavioral and lifestyle contributing factors as well as mental health outcomes, which must be considered given increasing rates of suicide and conflict in otherwise stressed populations.
Public policy should include food as a cornerstone to minimize issues of food access and equity, but no such comprehensive policy platform exists at either the state or national levels. Economic inequality is usually the root cause of food insecurity. As a result, the cost of food, particularly when one includes what it takes to obtain it, varies considerably. These issues have a history in policy and public investments that have left entire communities vulnerable to food insecurity and related public health concerns.
Business ecosystems, that are the context and mechanism for connecting food value chains, feature many steps between farm and fork, and extend to many other sectors that are not typically associated with food or agriculture, like transportation, financial services and energy. Transforming our system of food and agriculture to achieve food security will create enormous challenges, but also plenty of opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship in businesses and economies along food value chains, from local to global scales.
Cultural norms and values are at once both cause and effect of our current food system. The fact that Ohio has rates of household food insecurity above the national average, while very few people know about it, is a cultural issue. Almost all developed (and most underdeveloped) countries in the world formally recognize a fundamental human right to food, the sole exception being the United States. Food insecurity and outright hunger are beginning to engender a simultaneous response from faith, art, social justice and other communities. We have an opportunity to raise awareness of food security from each of these perspectives, with the humanities as a route to exploring and understanding what transformation requires and what it could make possible.
Transformation of the food system across all of the dimensions outlined above will require new thinking, backed by good research, and new mechanisms affecting the connectivity, flows and outputs of the food system, as well as changing the cultural norms that influence the many patterns of human activity in the current system. We plan to operate as a network backbone organization, addressing and supporting connectivity and flow of resources and capital to improve food security.
Transformation means changes across all of the functional areas of the food system. These are commonly grouped in the literature into: availability, including all aspects of production; access, including the many steps in the human food supply chain that brings food from source to consumer; and utilization, including both the way people use food and the outcomes, diet-related health and food waste for example.
Availability: Ohio has long been one of the most significant agricultural states in the country, producing a steady supply of corn, soybeans, grains, fruit, vegetables, meat, and livestock products. However, as our farming systems have become more specialized, the proportion of our production that is consumed by Ohio residents, and the diversity of landscapes that was a hallmark of Ohio for centuries has declined. We will leverage the skills and efforts of faculty across Ohio State colleges to develop economically and socially viable production systems that are more biodiverse, more climate resilient, and have an improved environmental footprint. We will encourage their adoption through development of new value chains and innovative policies to provide a reliable and affordable food supply that can reduce food insecurity and improve the physical health of Ohio people.
Access: Through InFACT, Ohio State is taking a transdisciplinary approach to solutions contributed by Ohio farmland, examining and highlighting the cultural setting, lived experience, and moral imperatives around food insecurity, the policy solutions that could be addressed at local, state, national and international scales, the business opportunities in reconfiguring supply chains and food system infrastructure to change how people access a healthy diet, and the health benefits that could result from various options for progress.
Utilization: Health and nutritional outcomes are a function of dietary behaviors that are informed by food production, food availability, economic and environmental factors, and interpersonal characteristics that drive food behaviors. InFACT brings together with hundreds of external partners an approach that goes beyond "food and health" to "food is health", a capacity to question and probe our food culture, research on new ways that food can be prepared and used, and an enhanced capacity to discover and educate about what a healthy food and agricultural system can be.