Yale School of the Environment food symposium explores alternate food futures
The 8th annual Yale Food Systems Symposium took a deep dive into the failings — and future — of food.
Hanwen Zhang, Contributing Photographer
Yale students and community members kicked off their Saturday morning at Kroon Hall with some food for thought.
Hosted by the Yale School of the Environment, the eighth annual Yale Food Systems Symposium took place last weekend. The event, titled “Reimagining ‘Regenerative’: Nourishing the Whole,” invited a cast of policymakers, speakers and community leaders for a day-long hybrid webinar discussion about some of the most pressing issues in current agricultural systems. Four panels — “Alternative Proteins,” “Indigenous Food Sovereignty,” “Blue Food” and “Alternative Food Networks” — addressed a broad swath of issues ranging from marine aquaculture to food infrastructure.
“The topic of ‘regenerative’ that the conference was centered on intended to meet the moment and explore how this idea is used across the food system,” Natasha Feshbach ’20 ENV ’23, one of the organizers of the event, wrote in an email to the News. “Just like the food system and its challenges, it is [a] complex topic and the symposium sought to understand more about … how it is exemplified and, in some cases, exploited in our food system.”
The symposium honed in on the shortcomings of our current agricultural practices: destructive monoculture systems, a culture of overconsumption, land dispossession and supply networks that privilege the wealthy and leave others in food deserts.
Among some of the most immediate concerns raised at the event was the carbon footprint produced by animal products. As of 2022, global livestock accounted for roughly 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic emissions. Livestock that emit methane, such as cattle, have been some of the worst offenders.
“Most people … have not yet made the link between what’s on their plate and the climate crisis,” said Sonalie Figueiras, panelist and editor-in-chief of Green Queen Media, a media platform promoting eco-friendly lifestyles and habits.
Figueiras drew upon her experiences living in Hong Kong, contrasting them with the West’s overdependence on factory meat. She cited growing global obesity and explained how the “incredible amount of animal protein” in our modern diets has become increasingly unsustainable both for personal health and the environment.
Large-scale farming practices also raise risks of zoonotic spillover of dangerous pathogens from livestock to humans. Panelists discussed how aggressive deforestation — often to make space for farms — has contributed to the wave of pandemics over recent decades. Creating enough land for livestock calls for dramatic changes in land use, which decrease biodiversity and result in viral transmission between local and farmed animals.
Jan Dutkiewicz, policy fellow at Harvard Law School, spoke of the need to “[address] food as a primary source of zoonotic risk.”
Despite their attempts to spread awareness of these issues, panelists remained divided over the extent to which the Western world would respond with action.
Dutkiewicz and Bruce Friedrich, CEO of the nonprofit Good Food Institute, agreed that dietary practices would be unlikely to change in the near future, with Friedrich estimating that global meat consumption was on track to double by 2050.
However, Friedrich also noted that the burgeoning alternative protein industry has made strides in mimicking animal products — though he said the price points of these goods will have to be further lowered in order to make them competitive. Dutkiewicz concurred with Friedrich, adding that “cooperation between people in the cell-agriculture space and the other … synthetic biology spaces” will also be necessary to advance alternative proteins.
Still, panelists said that reforming an agricultural industry of this size will demand shifts that are cultural as well as simply technological. Thosh Collins, co-founder of the Indigenous health initiative, WELL FOR CULTURE, discussed the need to recognize Indigenous land dispossession, arguing that colonization can be traced as a root cause of our disconnect with the land. He explained that regenerative agriculture begins by realizing that “food is connecting us to the changes in the land.”
Courtney Streett, co-founder of the nonprofit Native Roots Farm Foundation, also criticized current regenerative agriculture efforts, many of which engage in exorbitant pricing practices. Regenerative agricultural techniques such as crop rotation and polyculture have continually been extracted from Indigenous knowledge and marketed to an upper-class consumer base, “commercialized and commodified for profit,” she said.
In a society that has oppressed Indigenous peoples and ignored their cultural contributions, Streett called upon institutions like Yale to provide marginalized communities with greater access to resources.
“I think this is important to bring … voices from outside of Yale … to have this type of discussion with our students and community,” said Jordan Williams, an attendee at the event.
As the café and farm manager for Yale’s West Campus, Williams came to the symposium in search of new ways that Yale Hospitality could incorporate locally grown, seasonal foods into its services.
Nisreen Abo-Sido ENV ’23, one of the event organizers, noted that the symposium garnered over 200 event registrants, a turnout which she said signaled “immense interest on and around campus in engaging with food systems.” She expressed her hope for many more events like this to come.
The event also marked a familiar return to normal. According to Abo-Sido, the symposium was hosted in-person this year for the first time since the pandemic. Though panelists spoke over Zoom, attendees chatted over lunch catered by a variety of local restaurants ranging from Sitar to Madeline’s Empanaderia.