Meet affiliated faculty Joshua MacFadyen

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 Joshua MacFadyen, Affiliate Global Futures Scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory; Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture, University of Prince Edward Island.

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

I grew up on a farm, and most of my friends lived on farms, so I naturally thought this was every Canadian child’s experience. However as I grew older I realized it was far from the norm. I really loved farming and always thought I would be a farmer, but as I came to learn that we now live in the Anthropocene where a small number of people produce the food we need for a rapidly increasing population, I figured that it would make more sense to learn and teach about agriculture rather than do it myself. So I started to study rural sustainability and the environment, and I eventually completed a PhD in environmental history, the study of the relationship between humans and the natural world over time. I thought this relationship was most evident on farms because that is where people interacted with nature for most of human history. The whole question of sustainability came out of that naturally for me: is this something that can continue for thousands of years and what form will it look like? I wasn’t super direct with my path, but I knew I was interested in history and agriculture, and I wanted to make my passion useful. 

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

I study energy transitions in agriculture and the history of how agriculture has changed over time through the lens of energy. What I’ve realized is that most of the critical moments in the history of agriculture were about energy transitions. For example, in the 19th century there were a lot of mechanical innovations such as tractors and combines which save energy in the form of labor. Then in the 20th century there were a lot of biological innovations such as new plant varieties and the Green Revolution. All of these innovations were about energy: capturing energy and producing more of it with fewer inputs. One of the most interesting success stories in agriculture in the last 40-50 years is that the total area of land use in agriculture hasn’t gone up very much despite our growing population. We are able to produce more with less, but this does come with a lot of externalities. 

My work specifically in the last couple of years has been looking at the role of animals in energy use on farms. I think of animals as history’s bio-converters, carefully managed organic technologies which took energy from diverse ecosystems and transformed it to be useful for humans. I look at how this has changed over time in different parts of the world. I call this project, “Average Beasts and Where to Find Them.” 

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

Well, I am a historical geographer so I look at how geospatial patterns and relationships have changed over time. I’m using a lot of relatively new tools that allow computerized research for the digital humanities. I’m using tools such as GIS mapping to do work which was traditionally just done with books and paper. The most interesting part of this is that I can participate with the public and stakeholders from different parts of the food system in ways that were much more difficult just a few years ago. For example, I do participatory GIS mapping which is a way that people can help develop better plans and help us tell the stories of agricultural land-use change. One project that I’ve launched is called the Back 50 Project which invites people to think back 50 years with our historical maps of their land. They can look at their land today and compare it with the past few decades, and then tell us what they think were the main motivators for their land-use change over time. I find this kind of participatory research really exciting.  

What’s your go-to weeknight meal?

The lobster and potatoes are really delicious on Prince Edward Island where I live. However, the lobster is pretty expensive so my go-to is probably a good potato chowder.

Jane Coghlan