In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center senior fellows to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal.
Read on for an interview with Catherine Greene, Former Senior Agricultural Economist in USDA’s Economic Research Service.
How did you get interested in food systems issues?
I’ve always been interested in food systems since my childhood because I grew up in a farming family. My dad took care of our family’s apple orchard. This orchard and the farm had been in my family since 1860. I grew up seeing my grandmother grow and preserve most of her own food. It was the most delicious food I’ve had in my entire life. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get back to that garden-to-table deliciousness. Growing up in a farming community had an enormous influence on me and it’s one of the most positive experiences of my life.
What has changed in food systems over your career?
I’ll start with a personal anecdote first. My grandfather grew many more apple varieties than my dad did. When my dad expanded the orchard, he concentrated on growing only Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apple varieties in response to market demand at the time. In my opinion, those apples are okay, but they certainly aren’t delicious. I was in middle school when my dad met with the owner of a small grocery store in town to inquire about selling his apples, but the owner told my dad that he was never going to buy local apples. I had never seen him so mad. This lack of interest in local food has changed dramatically throughout my career and it is a very positive transformation for small farmers. Consumers are much more interested now in buying flavorful food that is grown locally.
What’s an innovation or development in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
I spent 35+ years working on organic food and agriculture in USDA’s Economic Research Service as an agricultural economist. When I started, there was virtually no work being done on organic agriculture. This has definitely changed. USDA has picked up the ball on developing data for organic farming, establishing farm programs for organic farmers, and doing research that is useful for the organic industry. We still have a long way to go, but this is a start which is very exciting. One of the biggest developments in the last Farm Bill for organic farmers was increased extramural funding, which is money that USDA gives to universities to do research on organic food and agriculture. This was a great development, but we can still further increase that funding. We also need to do much more inside the department in all the labs that USDA runs across the country. We could be doing more research on breeding elite organic seed varieties that organic farmers need. We could also be doing more public good research that improves pest management, cover crops, locally adapted varieties, and all the other things that organic farmers require in order to take their farm to the next level. Lastly, we need to do more food systems education and research on nutrition. There is a lot of nutrition research out there, but not much research on organically-grown food has been conducted by the USDA at their gold standard labs. We need to move in that direction and get the comparable work done for organic.
If there was something a new graduate of a food systems program should know, what would it be?
I would like all food systems graduates to know the importance of organic farming. The literature, research, and science behind organic food and farming has been building for decades. Every year that passes there is more research on the harmful effects of pesticides on farmers, farm workers and their families, and consumers. Even low doses of pesticides can have powerful harmful impacts across every system in the body. That is the harmful part of conventional agriculture, which brings us to the beautiful part of organic agriculture. Organic farming takes advantage of natural inputs and doesn’t put such an enormous strain on fossil fuels through the manufacturing of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic is a ready-made solution for coping with climate change and developing healthy soils. There are so many reasons to push in the direction of organic food and farming systems.
I’m very enthusiastic about farms of all sizes that go organic. I believe that we can, and already do, have ecological farming systems in play on farms of many different sizes. I’m hopeful that farmers can pick up the opportunities regardless of what their situations look like now. Locally distributed food is not necessarily the most energy efficient because of transportation issues, and it’s not necessarily grown organically. For those two reasons, I think we can put a lot of different ideas in play for developing sustainable food and farming systems.
What’s your favorite food and why?
This is an easy one for me! I know potatoes are a dirty word for a lot of people, but they are my absolute favorite food. Potatoes can do almost anything! They can play a down-home role as sides or they can play a glam role like potatoes Anna. They can be turned into almost any type of soup: potato chowder, potato corn chowder, potato corn jalapeno chowder, etc. I just love everything about potatoes. Since I come from a small Appalachian farm, I have to share my favorite Appalachian potato dish which is new potatoes with real green beans. Real green beans actually have a bean inside the green pod. They’re hard to find, but they are delicious.