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Researchers unite in call for sustainable food systems

Arnim Wiek is a professor in ASU's School of Sustainability.
Arnim Wiek is a professor in ASU's School of Sustainability.

More than 30 researchers from a dozen countries have authored a perspectives paper in the journal Nature Sustainability calling for the world to shift to more sustainable food systems.

They say the overhaul should be guided by education and research, and based on principles like sufficiency, renewal, distributed benefits, access and community.

“There are a lot of solutions out there,” said co-author Arnim Wiek of ASU’s School of Sustainability. “And we are recommending to really take account of those and make them stronger through sound research, providing evidence of how they work and how they can be scaled and transferred.”

Wiek says the seeds of change, in Arizona and elsewhere, are already there if consumers and institutions use their buying power to support them.

That includes making land available to small-scale, community-oriented farmers, many of whom are losing their acreage to urban development.

“Municipalities and the state overall should really put significant efforts in creating, for instance, agricultural land trusts or finding ways of maintaining, and maybe even making land again accessible to, small-scale farms,” said Wiek. “Because, at the end of the day, this is the core basis of the food supply for our region.”  

Wiek also pointed to some bright spots in the state, such as a burgeoning sustainable grain economy backed by craft brewers and bakers, and programs in Phoenix and Tempe that support sustainable food systems. Phoenix offers support and training for cooperative food business startups, while Tempe has tied its climate action plan to several food-related steps. 

Meanwhile, Wiek says the war in Ukraine, long nicknamed the breadbasket of Europe, has exacerbated the pressures on food systems already exerted by climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Europe and other parts of the world are heavily dependent on food products that are produced in Ukraine or Russia — grain products, sunflower oil, and other essential food products,” he said.

For Wiek, the paper represents a necessary move in which scientists stop limiting themselves to describing food sustainability problems and adopt a more proactive and collaborative role, working with stakeholders, policymakers, businesses and civic organizations.

“It's not any longer the passive role of the scientists standing by,” he said. “It's more an active and engaged role of scientists to produce knowledge that can be put into action and really change the food system towards sustainability.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: A quote on this story has been updated due to a speaking error by a source.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.