What is our future food system?


Did you know that our current industrialized food system is responsible for 33% of greenhouse gas emissions? Additionally, the way we produce food is eroding soil, damaging soil microorganisms, polluting water, and depleting our aquifers. Our faculty director, Dr. Pam Koch participated in Geography 2050: The Future of Food, sponsored by the American Geological Society and the Columbia Climate School, and held at Lerner Hall on Columbia’s campus on November 17 and 18, 2022. 


This conference blended geography, climate change, and food system. As the conference organizers described, “the future of food on planet Earth is fundamental to the vital trends that will reshape the geography of our planet over the coming decades. The choices that we make as individuals, as localities, as nations, and as a global society could lead to a more sustainable food future for all of us, while allowing our planet’s ecosystems to rebound and rewild.” This is critical. For if we don’t make different choices, life will become more difficult for many species, including humans.


The talks were on a wide variety of topics. Dr. Molly Jahn, Program Manager, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) discussed how our approach beginning after World War II has been wrong. We have been driven to produce more calories, without thinking about if the food is nourishing. Unfortunately, instead, we need to restore diversity and see food for all its complexities – including that there are wide varieties of what are called “phytonutrients” contained in plants grown in healthy soil. Other talks debated the pros and cons of alternative protein sources such as plant-based proteins, cultured meats, and fermented products. While there is a lot of financial investment in these start-up companies, the bottom line is that there is much less certainty on if these systems really have positive impacts on the environment and even if these products are healthier.


  1. Pam Koch moderated the panel on food and equity. This panel took a look at equity issues on a global level, particularly in Africa with Panelist Dr. Glenn Denning who has a forthcoming book, “Universal Food Security: How to End Hunger While Protecting the Planet.” Panelist Dr. Dennis Derryck, Founder Corbin Hill Food Project a social enterprise with a mission of providing food to those who need it most took a local look at food equity by exploring the challenges to farming in New York State, with a focus on the challenges faced by Black farmers from decades of inequitable policies.


Earlier in the semester. Dr. Koch attended the Food and Climate Transformation (FACT) Alliance workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on “Strengthening Science-to-Action Collaboration for Food System Transformation in an Uncertain Climate.” The goal was to “catalyze action for food system transformation through the strengthening of researcher-stakeholder collaboration.” Dr. Koch gave a talk on “Facing the Roadblocks to Healthy and Sustainable Diets.” Spoiler alert, the roadblock is the entrenched interest of the big agricultural and big food companies who are profiting from our current food system that is harming our ecosystem and causing diet-related diseases that are 85% of our healthcare costs.


We need radical change to our food system to support ecological sustainability, public health, and social justice. When do we start? Today is not too soon.