Got Science? Podcast | Episode 46 The Broccoli Backstory: Dr. Ricardo Salvador Explains the System Behind the Supermarket

November 13, 2018

Agricultural scientist Dr. Ricardo Salvador tells the story of how our food really gets to the grocery store, and discusses the urgent need for a sustainable and equitable food system.

In this episode Ricardo talks about:

  • What goes into building an equitable food system
  • How the scale of our food system effects sustainability
  • What you're really paying for at the supermarket vs. at a farmers market
  • What meal he would eat for the rest of his life if he could only choose one

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-1:10)
  • Intro (1:10-2:44)
  • Interview Part 1 (2:44-16:05)
  • Break (16:05-16:38)
  • Interview Part 2 (16:38-25:09)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (25:09-25:15)
  • This Week in Science History (25:15-27:37)
  • Outro (27:37-28:30)

Related content:

Full Transcript

With Thanksgiving in the United States a week away, I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite topics: food, and how we produce and consume it.

I love gardening and growing my own food. During the summer, I’m one of those coworkers who brings in the excess of what I grow to share around. I may even be one of those coworkers whom others come to for advice on how to rescue their sad little green beans, or the best way to stake a tomato plant. But despite being part of my own little food chain in my backyard, like many Americans, I didn’t really know a lot about where the rest of my food comes from. I mean, not until I started working here at UCS, where we have a team of dedicated scientists and agroecologists who study food and how we produce it. And honestly, some of what I’ve learned makes me want to postpone Thanksgiving until we can figure out how to grow, distribute, and consume food in ways that are healthier and more equitable for all of us in this country.

Here to talk about the good, the bad, and the unfair in food are correspondent Abby Figueroa and Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ricardo leads a team of scientists and experts in researching and implementing ways to improve the American food system, from farm to fork. He and Abby chatted about American agriculture and sustainability… how climate change might affect our farms and farmers… and he also graciously accompanied Abby on her imaginary trip to the grocery store.


Abby: Hi Ricardo, welcome to "Got Science?"

Ricardo: Nice to see you Abby.

Abby: Well, we're here to talk today about food and farming and what does it take to build a food system that's equitable and sustainable, but before we get into that, I thought we could talk a little bit about you and what brought you to this world of food farming and sustainable agriculture? Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.

Ricardo: For me, it's all been a big accident. I've been trying to do something about the welfare of my family on my dad's side. These were self-provisioning farmers in southern Mexico and I operated, for the longest time, with the assumption that the reason why they were poor in spite of how hard they worked and how ingenious they were was that they lacked technical information. And so I studied scientific career because I thought I would be able to contribute to the knowledge that small-scale farmers need.

And while that has been good, I discovered much too late I was way into that course of education that it really wasn't lack of technical knowledge, it was actually social factors that determined it because who my family were, it didn't matter how hard they worked, they were destined to always be in the bottom socioeconomic run. So that has brought me to shape a career that covers both the science of agriculture as well as the social justice aspects of agriculture.

Abby: Where did you grow up, Ricardo?

Ricardo: All over southern Mexico. So, primarily, in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca.

Abby: So, when it comes to food, what are your earliest memories of food in southern Mexico?

Ricardo: Well, I'm so old that I remember all kinds of food that folks probably would think is quaint right now, but we used to actually go to a market or to a store to get the ingredients for every day's meals, that was a very routine thing. And my mom would make that pilgrimage and then send us kids on little errands to get the little things that we would need. And so, for instance, it would be bread that we would have for breakfast and bread that we would have at the very end of the day. I still very fondly remember the meal that is called merienda, which is just before the kids get put to bed you get what here would be called a latte. You know, it would be coffee with milk and confectionery bread.

Abby: Did you have a favorite food when you were a kid?

Ricardo: Oh yeah, absolutely. There is a dish which is very traditional to the part of Mexico where I grew up. It's called mole. And it varies by region. Everybody down to the individual family household believes that they have the best recipe for mole, which is a very complicated sauce, which is based on chocolate and it's got all kinds of very interesting flavors. So I remember that fondly.

Abby: Sounds delicious. Many people don't think of food too much beyond the supermarket or beyond the dinner table. Why should food be a hot-button issue, a political issue next year in 2019?

Ricardo: Well, primarily because of the way that it's produced. And so there are people that are involved in both producing the food as well as processing and getting it to us. So the way in which it's produced actually signifies livelihood to many people. The way in which it's produced is also a way of using the earth, you know, because it's still a process that happens outdoors and so we utilize natural resources. So there is a way in the worst of instances, and what we do is we basically exploit both the people that produce, process, and deliver the food to us as well as the natural environment.

There are all kinds of alternatives in which we can treat everyone fairly and in which we can actually regenerate natural resources. And so, of course, at UCS, we're advocates for the latter. But the thing is that most people think of their food just in terms of the flavors that they like, how much time they have to go and find someplace to manufacture, serve the food to them, clean up after them. And really, very few people actually think about what's behind the plate so to speak. And so what that leads to is that most of us can condone an agricultural and a food system that we wouldn't approve of if we knew everything that it's actually doing in our name.

Abby: Now, one of the myths we sometimes hear about with sustainable agriculture is that it can't be done on a large enough scale to keep pace with demand with the growing population or that it's old-fashioned techniques and that, you know, there's new innovative ways to farm instead. What do you say to that?

Ricardo: Well, sustainability doesn't have to do with scale, it has to do with the methods that you use. And specifically, sustainability is about how long you can keep up any given activity. So, in fact, a lot of the very large scale industrial methods that we see applied in agriculture today are some of the most extractive methods, so by definition, they're not sustainable. You can't keep on extracting at the rate that they are, both water or the fossil fuel that they need, the minerals that they need, transported from all over the planet to make that practice viable.

Now I should say there are methods of producing sustainably at large scale, which all goes to the initial point that sustainability is not about scale, it's about the methods that you use. So, are you returning nutrients to the earth, for instance? Are you regenerating the carbon? Small-scale agriculture is something that I'm interested in for the reasons that I described. It was essentially the type of agriculture that was practiced where I was raised and I could see that it was very viable. But beyond my personal experience with it, it provides a livelihood for a greater number of people, and decent likelihood for a greater number of people or at least it has the potential to do that.

By definition, in larger scale agriculture, what you need to do is to mechanize and to homogenize practices as much as possible. So that means that the returns go to those that actually create the machinery that makes the large-scale practices possible. You need fewer people to practice that sort of agriculture. And so it all depends on what you value, what you want to see in your food system, and what and whom you want to support.

So let's change gears and talk a little bit about one of the issues that UCS is very heavily focused on these days, which is climate change. What does the future of farming and food look like in our warming world?

Ricardo: If we extrapolate what we expect climate change to do, first of all, weather extremes are going to be much more frequent. We're already beginning to see that. So, with higher temperatures, we will have much more moisture in the air, much more rapid and violent exchange of energy and you know, in the scientific sense this means thermal exchange of energy and so we can expect a lot of storms via extreme weather events. That is prone to cause situations where we're gonna have a lot of water at one time, and so that means that our systems will need to be resilient in order to be able to absorb that water so that it's not a destructive force. That means we need to improve the soil so that it has sponge-like characteristics, and that will depend on having a lot of organic matter in the soil.

And so what this means is that we need to be managing cropping systems so that they return a lot of organic matter vegetation to the soil so that we can begin to build up those stores and have soil that can fulfill two functions simultaneously. One is to retain water in storage for a long period of time so that in between rainfall events or in between storm events the water is banked up and plants can grow whether it's raining concurrently or not. And the other function is to actually meter that water out to plants as they use it, as I've just said.

And so the very best soil fulfills that characteristic because in the matrix that soil is there's actually two different compartments where those different types of water are actually stored. A farmer who knows what she or he is doing understands that the soil works that way and that you need to build that quality of soil. The majority of farmers are actually just interested in getting a crop in and out as quickly as possible. They need machinery to do that, and in the utilization of machinery what they do is actually destroy the capacity of the soil to perform in the way that I just described. They will tend to compact it, they will tend to erode it and so on. So it's everything that goes against what we need in order to be able to be resilient in the face of the dramatic change in climate. At least as far as the production aspect of agriculture is concerned.

You know, as a geek, it is fun to stay up with a lot of the innovations that are currently in agriculture. And I will give you one or two examples of that sort of stuff I but I just want to underscore that we know enough already to be able to practice agroecological systems of production. And that's very important to underscore because agriculture is an activity that is practiced outdoors utilizing natural resources as our main elements. With our knowledge, we can determine how productive that system is and whether it's sustainable for the long term. We don't need to know a whole lot more in order to apply what we already understand about how to combine ecology the way that the world actually works, the way that nature works with our objective, which is to produce food.

So we actually need markets, we need policies, we need incentives, we need educational systems so that farmers understand these management techniques and begin to apply them. So that's really what our work is at UCS. For me, it's very important to always distinguish that from the siren song of technology as if that were the key to solve any problem because, in fact, it's actually created a lot of the problems that we're trying to countervail right now, soil erosion and pollution of water and greenhouse gas emission by agriculture and so on.

Now, having said that, the crops that we work with, biological organisms that we have been improving to suit our needs from the moment that we began to domesticate them, the domestication process was never an instantaneous thing, it's always been gradual. And we are at the point now where we actually are beginning to understand enough about DNA and the way that it works that we may be able to adapt these species, both crops and animals, much more quickly to what we need of them in order to produce food. Now, that's exciting from a scientific standpoint. So such things as, for instance, getting grasses to fix biological nitrogen from the atmosphere and reduce their dependence on fertilizers, those are exciting prospects. We already have some instances of cases where through genetic modification you can actually integrate resistance to some insect species and to plants.

So, from a geeky standpoint, those sorts of things are very exciting. The other developments mostly have to do with digitization and things that almost everybody is familiar with who uses a cellphone, and that is geographic positioning systems, automation of equipment. If you talk to conventional agriculturists, they would recite all of those things almost breathlessly. So I'm, you know, just as geeky as anybody else about those things but I'm always asking what kind of a system does that serve?

Developing the kinds of organisms that I just described can be a very expensive proposition with the business models that we have in place right now.

And therefore, if industries undertake that very expensive investment, they will want to recoup that investment, which means that only farmers that have the capital and operate at such a scale that they can justify that kind of investment will benefit from that type of agriculture. Meaning that that further entrenches large-scale capital-intensive agriculture. And if that were the only option that we would have in order to fix nitrogen and get it to recycle within agricultural systems that would be one thing. But as I've mentioned, we know enough about the way in which the world works that we know that combining different species in polycultural systems, we can substantively get exactly that same performance. We would need different architectural setups and agricultural fields, we would need different machinery to be able to harvest polyculturals and so on. That's the direction of technology that I would much more prefer that we go.

[Break]

Abby: You've definitely sketched out a much more complex food system than the one that I would typically think about when I'm eating or shopping for my food at the supermarket. So, let's put it here, I'm going to imagine that I can take you with me to the supermarket next time I go.

Ricardo: Great, sounds like fun.

Abby: Yeah, tomorrow night will be my shopping night. So if I'm at the supermarket, you know, pushing the cart down the aisle thinking about what I wanna buy for dinner and over in the fruit and vegetable section, I spot some broccoli and some corn and say, "Ah, that's what I'm gonna have for dinner." I see food, I see dinner. What do you see though, when you're in the supermarket in the vegetable section?

Ricardo: Yeah. Well, in most supermarkets, the architecture where those sections are is very carefully planned. So that food and vegetable section is gonna be over on the side at the very edge of the supermarket to begin with. And the reason for that is that fruits and vegetables, by and large, are not processed. You know, they may in most process instances be in containers, cartons, and they may be wrapped in plastic but you will substantively get the actual fruit and vegetable.

When we say that something is not processed, to the industry what that means is that there's less value-add. You know, there's less that they can charge you for. The packaging, the ingredients, the formulation, the creation of what the industry refers to as an edible bite and what we understand as, basically, convenient. We go into a place like that to get the pieces that we assemble into a meal and most of us don't wanna spend more than about 10 to 15 minutes to do that. So the industry is providing value, it's making sure that we get those ingredients in a convenient way or the actual edible bites.

So we're recording this here in October, if you are seeing sweet corn, which, by the way, corn would be all over that supermarket, we can get back and talk about that but it would be a dramatically different kind of corn that you would find in the food and vegetable section. So there you would have sweet corn. If you, in fact, are seeing sweet corn there, it very likely has not been produced in this area. And so then you have to ask yourself, where is that sweet corn coming from? It's been transported. So, I see that there's been a lot of fossil fuel that has been invested in providing you the convenience that regardless of what season it is, whether that product is actually native to this place or not, whether it can be produced in season here, you're gonna have the ability to eat that if that's what you wanna have. You know, if on a whim you wanna have sweet corn.

With the broccoli what I would see is that this is a very labor-intensive crop. There are many aspects of it that are highly mechanized and, as a matter of fact, by the time that that broccoli leaves the field, it's already in the cartons that are gonna be delivered to grocery stores. The key thing is that it's chilled someplace until it actually gets loaded onto semis and then distributed throughout the country.

But in order to get those cartons packed, there is intensive human labor that's involved with crews that are actually following along with the machine that are doing the cutting with knives in the field, bundling them up. And the bundle that you buy in the grocery stores is already created by that worker before they put it into the curtain on this moving conveyor belts that are moving through the field. These folks are working from sun-up to sun-down, they need to keep up with the machine. You know, there is no stopping for anything. And so you have to think of yourself as a human cog in a mechanical system subject to the needs of the machinery. And so that means that human needs, you know, all the way from your bio breaks to whether you're thirsty or not to whether your knees are tired to whether there's too much sun, all of that are things that you are exposed to in a case where you're not really gonna be paid a whole lot for that. You're actually seen as a cost to the system that needs to be minimized.

So I think about all of those things, what it takes. And furthermore, I think that whereas most people would look at that system and say, "Hey, that's a very efficient system." If I drove you up in my pickup truck and we just observed it from the side of the road, you would see all of these things humming along. It would look like a lot of progress, a well-optimized system. And I see in that that if you take those human beings out of that, that system doesn't work. They are some of the most valuable parts of the whole system on the economic definition that if you take them away the whole thing doesn't work. Their value is incalculable, it's infinite, and yet we pay them the least that we can in order for that whole system to work. So I see human exploitation there. So, when you go to that supermarket section and pick up that broccoli, that's what I'm conscious of.

Abby: So with this image that you've painted for us of the workers, the need to transport food over long distances, the fossil fuels burned, the corporate nature of farming today, what's the best approach if I want to try to change that?

Ricardo: Let me give you some examples of things that you could do in this area. There is a farmer's market that happens in this town and most places these days will have farmer's markets. When you go to these places, by and large, they're trying to ensure that it is farmers who have produced themselves the fruits and vegetables, the meat, the products that are being sold there. So what that means is that your dollar for that food is going to go primarily to that farm family as opposed to what happens when you go to the grocery store. In the grocery store, you're paying for the shelf space, for the lighting, for the refrigeration, for the packaging, for the processing to the extent that what gets to the farmer, depending on what the farmer has produced, can be as little as eight cents if what they're producing is the cereal grains that go into cereal boxes, to the best of cases maybe 20% to the dollar if what they're producing is milk.

Whereas if you go to a farmer's market, then your food dollar is going to that farmer directly. So you're not paying for the intermediary. Now, you're driving yourself to that market, you have to walk around to different spots in the market to find all of the whole foods that then you process. So you're gonna be putting more labor into processing that for yourself if what you're buying is whole foods, and that's a tradeoff. You say to yourself, "These are the people that I wanna support, and this is where I want my money to go." Now, the next step is how do they treat their workers? And there, this is a more difficult thing. But again, you're in a part of the world where there are some nice examples.

Abby: Those are really good tips, thank you for that. And I have one more question for you, and this is a little bit on the lighter side. So let's just say you were on a deserted island, what would be the food you'd want with you for the rest of your life? What meal are you willing to eat for the rest of your life?

Ricardo: Well, that's a very nice question. And actually, I think all of us will have a different answer depending on where we are from because we all have diets and staple foods that we grew up from. And I'm a creature of southern Mexico. Beans and tortillas are the things that to me define warm, you know, hot, piping meal that both nourishes as well and also just reminds me of my culture, my family, my upbringing. And I grew up in a place where those things grew naturally, and as a matter of fact, they were domesticated there. They were the native crops of the area. So, it’s in the culture, it's in the songs, it's in the poetry, it's in the metaphors that we use every day.

Abby: Well, I think I'm gonna wanna be on that same deserted island as you, so...

Ricardo: Okay. Well, I'll need your help because we'll need to put a lot of labor into that system.

Abby: Definitely. Well, thank you, Ricardo, very much. Back to you, Colleen.

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Credits: 

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Special thanks to Abby Figueroa, Luis Castilla and Maria Vidart for production of the episode in Spanish