Movers & Shakers: BinBin Pearce, Exploring the Environmental Impact of Food Networks

Today we’re interviewing BinBin Pearce, a PhD student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her dissertation is about understanding the environmental impacts of various scales of agriculture in the California Bay Area. She is also working on a plan to localize food production and waste management in the Jurong Lake District of Singapore. She spends most of her spare time nosing around local markets, talking to farmers, cooking, and, of course, eating! We recently got a chance to talk to her about her current research, read on to learn more about what she’s trying to accomplish.

Real Time Farms: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and your research?

BinBin Pearce: I studied environmental engineering, got involved in doing research in Chinese energy policy, and went back to school to understand how to design sustainable cities, initially. The more I read and thought about cities, the more I started to realize that the division we have created between the urban and the rural is artificial. Cities wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the resources provided to them by the countryside. They are interconnected systems, and achieving a way of life that is sustainable in one is not possible without considering the other. Food is the most direct link between the rural and urban, and it also appealed to me on a personal level as a research subject.

Food is something that everyone can deeply connect to at some level. Food is not in the abstract and ties you to a specific place, a specific memory, a specific culture. Food, therefore, makes sense as a starting place for people to think about sustainability and the environment. It is the most basic connection we make to our environment.

I’m in the early stages of studying the differences in environmental impact of food networks of various scales, starting from production, to processing, to distribution, and finally to consumption in the California Bay Area.

RTF: What aspect of farming’s impact on sustainability do you think would be most surprising to consumers?

Pearce: What may be surprising to consumers is just how deeply connected farming is to sustainability. While most of the discussion surrounding the topic, at least in the U.S., is centered around energy production, food production may be an even more fundamental aspect of how well our society will survive for future generations. Large scale farming and policies that enable its existence are at the root of the loss of topsoil, nutrient runoff causing eutrophication of oceans and waterways, loss of biodiversity, not to mention the imbalanced diets to which most Americans have become accustomed.  Our attitude towards farming is at the heart of what we value in life, what we want to spend our time and energy on, and what we hold most dear.

What may also be surprising to consumers is the possibility that the mode of production (ie, biodynamic, organic) is important, but perhaps not as important as the scale of production, and who’s doing the farming. For example, a small, conventional farm may still result in less environmental impact than a large, organic farm. One explanation for this may be that the distribution and retail networks that smaller scale farms tap into are inherently more sustainable due to the more personal connection that the people working with these networks have to their products. If this is true, the question may come down to how can we make a network of small-scale agricultural production for all of our food, rather than accept a system in which farms are super-sized and run by corporations.

RTF: Your research aims to perform a deep life-cycle analysis on many farms over the course of two years. Can you explain how you plan to quantify environmental impact?

Pearce: The environmental impact will be quantified in two stages. The first stage is to quantify the impacts of each farm and the second stage is to quantify the impacts of the entire distribution network that the farm products goes through before making it to the consumer. In this way, we can get an understanding of the effects of scale of production not only from the farm itself, but also the distribution network that is created as result of that scale of production.

For the farm, the environmental impacts will be categorized by the amount of fertilizer, pesticides, energy, and water that is consumed directly, as well as indirect inputs such as energy used to produce pesticides and fertilizer. Environmental impacts will also be categorized by the outputs of farm, such as nitrate and nutrient concentration of run-off, carbon dioxide emissions, and waste.

In addition,  the environmental impacts of the distribution network will be quantified in terms of direct and indirect energy consumption.

The quantities will be analyzed using a tool called Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) which has databases that help to translate the amounts of inputs and outputs into environmental impact.

RTF: Walk us through a day in the life of your research. Is it a matter of getting ahold of the right people to interview? Or going out in the field and taking measurements? Or something else?

Pearce: The research will be divided into phases. In the first phase, surveys will be sent to hundreds of farms to get information about inputs and outputs of farms. In the second phase, interviews will be conducted in order to verify information on the surveys and to understand the network in which the farm is a part of. There might only be about 30 farms who will be a part of this second phase, depending on the response rates. In the first phase, it will be a matter of calling up farmers to explain to them the purpose of the survey and trying to get them to fill it out. I will also be simultaneously conducting a literature review of already published figures on farm input and outputs, as well as contacting groups who have already conducted experiments on farming who may already have some field data on farm inputs and outputs. In the second phase, I will be visiting the farms who respond to the surveys and will conduct more in-depth interviews about who their distributors are, where they sell their product, and why they’ve made the decisions they’ve made. In this way, I will be able to draw a simple map of where the product goes and ends up.

RTF: What is one feature that you would like to see Real Time Farms add that would make it easier for consumers to understand the environmental impact of farms they might consume food from?

Pearce: The transparency of the food system is vital to enable people to align their choices with their values and intentions. Questions I often ask myself while shopping for food include: How do I really know what I’m buying is making a difference? How big of a difference am I making? Should I buy local or organic? Does it make sense to buy organic if I know it comes from a big farm? Should I choose to buy the local food that’s not necessarily organic? I’m guessing that there are many others like me who have the same questions, and presently, there really is no one to provide the answers.

Real Time Farms could play a unique role in the process of bringing transparency to the food system. In addition to providing information about where and how far away food producers, artisans, and vendors are located, it could also provide a feature that lets consumers see the environmental impact of the food that consumers might buy from a certain location. For example, there would be an environmental factor that shows the relative impact of purchasing organic yogurt bought from the local grocery store versus purchasing yogurt from the conventional small dairy a few miles farther away.

By tying our actions directly to the resulting environmental impact, sustainability will no longer be an abstract idea, but rather a specific outcome that is the sum of decisions we make in everyday life. Bringing awareness to our actions is the key to sustainability. Carefully considering what food to buy and eat could be the starting point for bringing consciousness to the rest of our lives.

If anyone is interested in being a part of the study, helping out with data collection, or just wants to be periodically updated on the research, feel free to contact me directly through the form below.

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1 Response to Movers & Shakers: BinBin Pearce, Exploring the Environmental Impact of Food Networks

  1. Good morning. We are in our 3rd season – The Greenbank Farm Agricultural Training Center – training new farmers in a 7-month residenial program that is experiential and curicula-based. I am interested in the right scale of farming issue that you discussed, as we have had conversations about this issue. The Greenbank Farm Agriculture Training Center is a community-based program, which means the Training Center idea came from the community – not a university. We are doing farming and training on 5 acres right now and will be utilizing close to 10 acres next year when we add animals. Very interested in your Life-Cycle analysis. I think we could provide information that would be helpful to you and to us as we get a better sense of how we are doing in the ‘larger-scope’ of things. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks, Maryon Attwood, Project Director

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