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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Food for thought: Clash between engineered and biological food systems creates challenges, waste

Food system infrastructure is strong, yet flaws exist
Caitlin Thies

Over the summer, a single bottle of Huy Fong Sriracha was selling for up to $100 on eBay. Some grocers were limiting customers to one bottle per purchase while others sold out completely, and restaurants tapped into their last batches.

Nearly two thousand miles away from Wisconsin, Mexico was facing drought and had been for some time, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Huy Fong Foods, a California-based company that gets its supply of chili peppers from Mexico, issued a statement in April 2022 attributing its sriracha shortage to the drought and weather conditions, which affected the chili pepper harvest.

In the south, Georgia and South Carolina are facing peach shortages, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration. California is also seeing a decline in its peach crop.


Washington and Idaho faced lower numbers in potato production in 2022, according to the USDA. Compared to 2021, potato production in 2022 for the U.S. as a whole was down three percent.

Winters are warming, wildfires are rampaging, regions are facing more droughts followed by periods of heavy rainfall and crops are subject to growth conditions they are not suited for. According to practicing economic anthropologist Michelle Miller, the crops grown to be eaten struggle to do just that — grow — in these atypical and drastically changing weather patterns. And harvest season becomes harder to predict.

But it’s not just humans who are contributing directly to climate change — food waste is too, Miller said. As consumers, it’s important to understand where food comes from and where it goes. And food doesn’t just disappear after it’s thrown out — it becomes a factor of climate change too.

The pandemic also exposed cracks in the food system, according to Miller. As people became sick and needed to take time off, the food supply chain became backed up, exposing production and labor issues.

“It just shows you the importance of having trust and good communication and solid relationships during these times of uncertainty to manage the disruptions and try to keep things steady,” Miller said.

A look back at the food system, climate change

Historically, the World Wars are a driver for why the current food system is the way it is, University of Minnesota professor of applied economics Hikaru Peterson said.

During both world wars, the United States faced food shortages, which resulted in rationing, according to the Imperial War Museums. Following the end of the war and the lift of rations, the focus was on ensuring masses of people were fed enough calorically, Peterson said. 

Economists used to believe there wasn’t a way to continue feeding a growing population, but the years after the World War defeated those odds as the agricultural system continued to support the growing population, Peterson said. 

To this day, the current food system has retained some of the cost efficiencies of past food systems, Peterson said. It continues to support a growing population though it’s starting to feel constraints from a limitation of resources.

Concerning Wisconsin’s food system in particular, farmers’ markets also started popping up across the state around the 1970s and gaining more traction, Miller said.

While farmers’ markets had existed for decades before, the Dane County farmers’ market wasn’t established until 1972. Since then, it has grown to become the country’s largest producers-only farmers’ market, according to the Dane County Farmers’ Market website.

The earth has a history of a changing climate, State Climatologist Steve Vavrus said. Even long before humans were in the picture, there was some climate change.

“You look back in the Earth’s history and you’ll see examples of really, really warm climates when there was no ice anywhere in the world,” Vavrus said. “Other times 20,000 years ago, we had huge ice sheets extending across the northern hemisphere.”

But what humans have done is “take the steering wheel” when it comes to climate change, Vavrus said. Humans are accelerating and pushing the climate system in a direction toward warming.

Vavrus said the concern for climatologists like himself is the pace at which climate change occurs.

“Just because we’re [humans] driving doesn’t mean it’s easy to apply the brake. And we really need to be careful not to [push things] too far in the wrong direction,” Vavrus said.

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The “leaky” food system

Researchers have been looking at the problems with how the food system is currently configured for decades, Miller said. But COVID-19 exacerbated and revealed these cracks in the system to the public beyond the researchers.

Businesses began to understand why suppliers couldn’t deliver certain products to them during the pandemic as they were facing challenges at the production level. In a study, Peterson said focus groups expressed that they found it helpful to talk to other people in other parts of the supply chain.

For a long time, researchers like Miller have said more meat processing needs to happen at the community level. The problem with relying on only a handful of meat processors to move large enough volumes of animals to supply the entire system is that it’s overly efficient.

An overly efficient food supply chain is not diverse enough, meaning it will become dependent on just a few varieties of food or suppliers, according to Miller. For example, the chicken processing system is engineered efficiently to operate as much as possible and lose as little money as possible.

But engineered and human systems like these are linear, causing path dependencies that limit change and create other problems in the food supply chain, Miller said. What path dependency causes is a habit of doing the same thing over and over without making changes that need to happen.

Issues occur, in part, because food systems have both biological and human components, but biological systems are nonlinear and uncertain, which don’t always work well with engineered, human systems, Miller said.

Overly efficient and low-diversity food systems are also low in resilience to shocks like COVID-19, according to Miller.

When the pandemic hit, Miller said the number of people who were getting sick affected the processing rate of meat — there weren’t enough people in the processing facilities to move the animals through at a rate the facilities were used to. 

Farmers had to hold onto their animals for longer, causing the animals to grow to a size too big for the size-restricted processing machinery, Miller said. Farmers then had to resort to euthanization and burying or composting them on the farm.

Though Wisconsin has 133 Wisconsin-based meat processing facilities that could take some of the larger animals to process for food, not every state has the capacity to do small-level processing, Miller said.

It took a disruption, like COVID-19, to the system to make labor issues become more apparent to everyone even though the issue had been known for a long time, Miller said.

“When you go to the store and you aren’t able to get chicken or pork, you notice it, right?” Miller said. “We’re used to having everything full and shelves overflowing with products. That was the good thing about COVID-19, and it was a wake-up call that we really need to pay attention to fixing the food system.”

Miller said the heavy reliance on processing machinery to replace manual labor in wealthy countries like the U.S., though, causes problems with overproduction.

When overproduction occurs, food producers generate more food than can be eaten or sold on an international market, Miller said, costing more money to produce than businesses can profit from. This is not only a waste of time and resources, it becomes a food waste issue.

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The intersection of climate change, uncertainty and food waste

Even before the climate was less disrupted and more steady, Miller said, there were already questions of when the peak time to harvest would be. Climate change just causes more uncertain conditions on top of already uncertain growing conditions.

“We’re talking weeks and months, in some cases, or not at all because we’ve had such horrible drought or major flooding [which have] completely disrupted production,” Miller said. “As production is disrupted like that, it creates a whiplash through the whole [food] system — that’s the challenge with climate change and agriculture and food production in particular.”

A warmer growing season tends to be longer, Vavrus said, meaning farmers — who are at the front lines of climate change — will have more opportunity to plant early and harvest late.

While longer growing seasons may seem beneficial, the 2010s were the warmest decade on record for the state, which Vavrus said was “too much of a good thing.”

“[A] key difference with climate change is that almost everywhere in the world has seen a warming trend, but some places have become a lot drier, some places quite a bit wetter, and we expect that difference to continue in the future,” Vavrus said.

Though the springs were warmer than in years past, this made it difficult for farmers to plant and harvest. In fact, according to Vavrus, the 2010s saw a large amount of flooding and especially wet springs, highlighting the trend toward wetter weather and flooding. 

When it starts to get warm earlier in the year, the first and last killing frost of the spring would become earlier, and the first and last killing frost of the fall would become later, Vavrus said. Plants would start responding to the warmth through budding or leafing, making them vulnerable to the cold snaps. This may even become more common in the future as Earth trends toward a warmer climate.

“A longer growing season, on average, doesn’t mean that every year will be longer, and you can pay a price if you have too warm of winter or early spring — you may prematurely develop plants before they’re really ready for the summer warmth,” Vavrus said.

Sometimes climate change involves trade-offs, highlighting its complexity and why researchers need to study these surprises better to become better prepared, Vavrus said.

While Wisconsin doesn’t need to manage wildfires or strong hurricanes, it may still feel the effects, as air quality suffered during the summer of 2023 due to Canadian wildfires, Vavrus said.

“This idea that Wisconsin will somehow be buffered from climate change because we don’t have some of these other problems that other states have, that’s really pretty simple-minded. We all are going to have our own challenges when it comes to climate change,” Vavrus said. 

The greatest percentage of food waste happens in people’s homes, Miller said. It’s one thing to understand where food comes from before hitting the shelves, but it’s another to understand where wasted food ends up and how that points back to climate change.

After consumers dispose of spoiled or uneaten food from their refrigerators or pantries, it ends up in the landfill, which then becomes a methane issue, Miller said.

Methane is a potent greenhouse and landfill gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It accounts for half of LFG emissions with carbon dioxide making up the other half. Both methane and carbon dioxide are GHGs that trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, but methane is 28 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

When waste is deposited in a landfill, it reacts with oxygen to go through two phases of aerobic decomposition, which generates little methane, according to the EPA. After these phases, anaerobic conditions, or conditions lacking oxygen, are established within or less than one year. It’s during these anaerobic phases that bacteria generate great amounts of methane as they decompose the waste.

Food waste happens along the entirety of the food supply chain, from farms and trucks to warehouses and stores, Miller said.

Food processing facilities, however, are more efficient in terms of producing less food waste because it affects their production and profits, Peterson said. Companies have come up with creative ways to ensure that food waste can be turned into economic profit.

Companies like PepsiCo have processing plants that convert leftover potato peelings into low-carbon fertilizer. The farms where the potatoes are grown will then use this recycled fertilizer, according to the PepsiCo website.

Peterson said she believes there’s room for improvement in how food waste affects the efficiency of the food supply chain. But the answer isn’t as straightforward as just redistributing the wasted food to somebody else who needs it.

Miller also said producing less food may have negative consequences. While food would cost more, which would make food waste become a more expensive action, this would create a barrier for those who already can’t afford food.

“This is where you get into systems thinking,” Miller said. “If you produce less, increasing the cost, people buy less and there’s less food waste as a result of that. But then you’ve got people who can’t afford to buy the food because now it’s too expensive.”

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Food insecurity should be met with food assistance programming

Food insecurity has become the leading indicator of well-being for vulnerable Americans, Snee Family Endowed Chair at Baylor University Craig Gundersen said. But the wealth of the U.S. suggests there shouldn’t be people who are food insecure.

Since 2014, research has shown a dramatic decline in food insecurity, especially among children, due to economic growth and people moving to the South where there is high economic growth, Gundersen said.

But this doesn’t consider those who do not have resources to provide for themselves or their families and face constraints. One group includes people with disabilities, Gundersen said, which has become the leading predictor of food insecurity in the U.S.

Gundersen is the lead researcher with the Map the Meal Gap project through his affiliation with Baylor University, which estimates the food insecurity rate across the U.S. by county or district and age or race/ethnicity. This resource has become the leading measure of food insecurity across the U.S., Gundersen said.

“What it really shows is the incredible amount of differences across the United States in terms of food insecurity rates when we look at the county-level differences that would be obscured if we looked at it from the state level,” Gundersen said.

Wisconsin, for example, sees a huge variation in food insecurity rates, Gundersen said. The Native American or Alaskan Native populations in Northern Wisconsin experience much higher rates of food insecurity than the rest of the state.

To help with this issue, food banks play a “huge role” in providing food for those for whom the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — from the Food Stamps program — is not sufficient. Food banks also help those who do not qualify for SNAP, Gundersen said, which is an assistance program for low-income households that provides food benefits.

When asked about the importance of food assistance programs, Gundersen said SNAP is the most important resource for vulnerable households in the U.S. with charitable food assistance programs being second.

“It’s bigger than the national school lunch program and school breakfast program and far bigger than WIC [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children],” Gundersen said. “SNAP is by far the largest but charitable food assistance is the second largest.”

Economic growth is another factor of food insecurity. People are leaving Illinois to move to Texas in the south because the economy is better there, Gundersen said. Concentrating on how to grow the economy is especially important for low-income households.

“The thing about that relationship — the supply chain and the food system — is that all those economic transactions that take place both are affected by the context in which they operate in, but also they affect [each other] back,” Peterson said. “It depends on what kind of technology is available to make all those decisions along that food supply chain. All the innovations that happen because of those economic challenges could give feedback to the technology for example.”

And with the mental health crisis the country currently faces, there is a much greater risk of being food insecure, according to Gundersen. It’s therefore imperative to continue talking about the challenges those with disabilities face regarding food insecurity to ensure they, too, can be food secure.

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Big farm, small farm dynamic

The United States agricultural supply chain is the “envy of the world,” helping to keep prices low and decreasing food insecurity, Gundersen said.

“From our farmers to the meat packers and all the way up this chain back and down again, it’s really, really efficient. That’s helped food prices remain low,” Gundersen said.

Big farms and small farms both contribute to the marketplace but in different ways. Small farms need access to smaller markets, which Miller said creates a power dynamic between big and small farms. 

Miller compared the dynamic to a pipeline, where the small farms are small pipes themselves trying to fit product through a large pipeline.

“If you’re a farmer, you’re a small pipe moving a small amount of product, you put it into a big pipe and you get lost in it,” Miller said. “You don’t have an opportunity to negotiate because you don’t have any power in the relationship — you’re too small.”

Farmers’ markets provide the opportunity for smaller-sized farms to start contributing to the marketplace, Miller said.

On the other hand, large farms and corporations like Wal-Mart and Kroger can bypass this without having to deal with the small farms, Miller said, and have no issue moving product through a big pipeline.

The time it takes to process and bill a small order versus one large order plays a role in this dynamic, Miller said. While processing a small order takes the same amount of time as a large order, having to process many small orders to fulfill a larger need takes much more time.

“If you think about it in terms of Willy Street Co-op, when it was one store, it would bring in products and could handle many small orders because it didn’t need a lot of anyone,” Miller said. “But when Willy Street Co-op turned into three stores, suddenly it’s much harder for them to manage a lot of small orders coming in from farmers.”

Another co-op is the Wisconsin Food Hub Co-op, which gathers food from smaller farms and delivers it to clients who want some local food on their shelves, Miller said. Contracts between co-ops and farms can end at any point, however, especially when the same product is available at a cheaper price elsewhere.

“If you’re a small producer and you go to small claims court and say they [the other party] didn’t honor their contract, then that company might have to pay you for that load, but they will never buy another load from you again,” Miller said.

What it comes down to is small farms having no recourse because of the power differential between the small and large producers, Miller said.

What the region lacks is a middle-sized market. There are small and large markets, but nothing in the middle, Miller said. At these middle-sized markets, farmers would sell wholesale to a store.

“But it wouldn’t be so much product. They [farmers] wouldn’t have to provide so much product to make it viable. That medium-sized marketplace for wholesale is what’s missing in our region,” Miller said.

Other regions within the U.S. and outside of it have medium-sized markets. France, which is similar in size to the upper midwest, has about 20 of these markets, Miller said.

Markets of this size can handle both small quantities of food and larger shipments of food or food from a different region of the Eurasian continent, Miller said. 

“Having that mid-sized market is a piece of the infrastructure that’s missing in most places in the United States and could be a real improvement to supporting small farmers,” Miller said.

The future of food systems

The Wisconsin State Climatology Office aims to provide and develop research products for farms regardless of size to help them make decisions on their farming operations, Vavrus said. Steps like these are necessary in the time of a changing climate.

“Things like when to plant, what’s the best time to spray [for pests], what’s the optimal time in the year to harvest, when are their livestock experiencing dangerous levels of heat or cold stress, things of that nature could all be very helpful for improving the lives and the livelihoods of farmers and others in Wisconsin,” Vavrus said.

Though the entire planet is experiencing some form of climate change, nuances in how specific regions’ climates are changing exist, Vavrus said. One of the goals of the Office is to distinguish Wisconsin’s changing climate in particular from the rest of the world.

Experts are currently looking at two ways to successfully address climate change, Vavrus said. Mitigation involves stemming the problem from the source by reducing carbon emissions or finding ways to draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

“Sometimes you hear the term ‘science is settled,’ and it’s settled in one way — we do know the climate is changing and humans are largely responsible, but it’s not settled in other ways. We don’t know all the different facets of climate change or exactly what surprises may be down the road,” Vavrus said.

The other strategy involves adaptation, both now and in the future, Vavrus said.

Groups such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been working toward reducing the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere through international cooperation and policies, Vavrus said.

Locally, the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts is strategizing ways to adapt by looking at how climate change affects the everyday lives of Wisconsinites and finding ways for people to soften the impact. WICCI covers topics from wildlife and forestry to human health, tourism and infrastructure.

Gundersen said the government should also continue expanding and increasing SNAP benefit levels. In 2021, the Thrifty Food Plan, which sets the maximum level for SNAP benefits, raised it by 20%, which was unprecedented. 

“That [food access] was a big issue that came up during COVID-19,” Miller said. “We had food pantries and food banks seeing long lines of new people using food pantries who had never used them before because suddenly people were losing their jobs and couldn’t afford food anymore.”

At the farm level, many regions grow only certain foods so that those foods can grow year-round. But this isn’t always the best solution to continuous food production, Miller said. 

Having more places to grow the product, instead of restricting it to certain regions would make the food system less efficient but at the same time more resilient to disturbances like a pandemic or natural disaster, according to Miller.

The most room for improvement is at the bottom half of the food supply chain and a little above — the consumer and business level, according to Peterson. The way some businesses deem products “not marketable” or sort them inefficiently could be rectified.

“[For] those of us in academia, the least we can do is to try to continue pushing the information out on how the overall supply chain and the food system are all interconnected and just try to raise people’s awareness,” Peterson said.

At the individual level, Peterson said people can start making small behavioral changes — like learning what products are compostable versus not which can go far in the interconnected food system.

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