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May 17, 2019

Joan McGregorThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Joan McGregor professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: I came into food systems in a circuitous route. My field is bioethics and environmental ethics and sustainability. I was working on issues of climate justice, and the unequal burdens of climate change impacts, but it’s hard to get the public worked up about climate.

So I started to look at the effects of climate on the food system. There are already effects on the food system from climate change, like drought and flooding. Through that, I started thinking about food security and broader food systems issues. I’m a moral philosopher and a legal philosopher so I had to really take a deep dive into the facts of the food system to get up to speed. And that learning process led me to ask how we got to our current food system.

When you start to think about it, so many of our health problems are generated by the food we eat. It is amazing to be the wealthiest country in the world, and we’re feeding ourselves and our children food that is nutritionally bereft. We gave up quality for the cause of efficiency. I began thinking about all this from a moral perspective, and in terms of justice and building community wellbeing.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: I want to bring in humanities researchers into food studies because the food system is intrinsically about human culture and meaning. If you see food as only a problem of technology or agriculture, you’ll only see that perspective. But if you see food as essential to human wellbeing with all the cultural and historical connections you see it in a very different way.

Dinner 2040: The future of food is about getting community members in the food systems with university researchers to envision a food system that preserves the values that we all want to see reflected in our food. Food that is about history, culture, and place; where the people who work in the system are all treated justly; where food is seen as a public good, so that everyone has access to it; a food system that is sustainable and that preserves the natural environment; and the idea that the food system is one that preserves people’s ability to have a voice in it.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: I’m really interested in agriculture techniques that are much more ecologically in tune, like agroecology. There are people working on these systems and figuring out if we can do that at larger scale. I don’t tend to think innovation is going to save us, but some people are taking old techniques and putting them into modern contexts. We have to figure out how to feed people high quality food without destroying the environment.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: One of my favorite foods of all time is dungeness crab, because I grew up in San Fran and part of it is the memory of eating it with my family every week. Here in Phoenix, I’m a member of Maya’s Farm CSA, and getting those fresh vegetables every week and knowing the farmer has really affirmed how important that connection is.