Every minute people flood supermarkets and grocery stores to buy food. We often do not think about how the brands we consume leave from seeding companies, to the farm, to green processors, to distributors and retailers. There are powerful actors who decide what we eat, and how much gets to us.
According to Philip Howard, 40% or more of the market, at every key stage in the food system in the U.S. is controlled by four firms. That has implications for harming the environment, human health and vulnerable sections of society, such as poor people, recent immigrants, and minorities.
Philip Howard is an associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, and a member of the International Panel for Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. In this episode, we talk about his new book: Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls what we eat?
In the African country of Cameroon, the lack of readily available water during the dry season can hurt a farmer’s ability to grow crops all year.
Ndeta Beuma'a, a master's student in power systems engineering, faculty of engineering and technology at the University of Buea in Cameroon, has developed a solar powered irrigation system that automatically brings water to crops when they need them.
His system may let farmers irrigate their crops during the dry season and in dry soils, allowing the crops to grow throughout the year.
Photo: Pechulano Ali
Every month millions of poor people in India visit fair price shops to buy wheat, rice, sugar or oil at a reduced price.
A network of more than 400,000 of these shops have provided government subsidized food to more than 600 million citizens.
It is the largest distribution network in the world, yet there are concerns about its efficiency.
Prashant Rajan, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, studies how sales people feel about using debit card-like smartcards to track fair price purchases in India's Chhattisgarh province.
His research could help provide higher quality food at a lower cost.
For some people anything is good if it's made of chocolate. But many people don’t know how chocolate is made or where it comes from.
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans found in West Africa. As the world’s demand for chocolate rises, many cocoa farmers struggle with low yields and low incomes. More than 90 percent of cocoa farmers in Ghana, the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, live on less than a dollar a day per person.
Researchers are studying if certifying farmers as trained cocoa producers can benefit their businesses.
Ebenezer Offei Ansah, a masters student in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, interviewed cocoa farmers and producers in Ghana to find out how certification programs work. His research could identify problems in cocoa production in Ghana and other cocoa producing countries.
Photo: Ebenezer Offei Ansah
Plastic is used for food packaging because it is widely available and cheap. However some plastics are not recyclable and those plastics contaminate the environment.
This has led to a push for the creation of food packaging that can break down safely and naturally. These packages keep food fresh, protect the environment, and can be used as fertilizer.
Chris Wilson, a masters student in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, studies how to make food packaging safe and more environmentally friendly. His research could impact food security around the globe.
Typically, air conditioners are not seen as a way to keep food cold enough to safely eat. But a new technology lets air conditioners provide safe and inexpensive cold food storage.
Ron Khosla, a small farmer in upstate New York, created a technology called CoolBot that turns almost any window air conditioner into a food storage machine for about an eighth of the cost of a walk-in refrigeration unit.
His innovation could help reduce food waste and post harvest losses.
Photo: Ron Khosla
In some urban areas of Malawi, 42 percent of households spend at least 30 minutes a day collecting drinking water. Almost all of the people collecting this water are women and children.
But this water may not always be safe to drink. Many people suffer from waterborne diseases caused by drinking contaminated water.
Ellis Adams, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at Michigan State University, examined how people get their water in poorer places in Malawi. He looked at water safety issues in urban and semi-urban areas of Blantyre and Lilongwe. His research could help identify gender dynamics and power structures around water supplies in Malawi.
Photo: Ellis Adams
In the African country of Malawi there is not a lot of vegetation, and organic matter in the soil is quickly broken down.
The poor soil means many farmers in Malawi have to adopt innovative methods to increase production on their small farms.
Chiwimbo Gwenambira, a doctoral student in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University, studies how to grow pigeon pea at the same time and place as ground nuts, soybean and maize. She is working with farmers in projects called mother and baby trials, where multiple farmers observe an original test field, and then adopt the practices they think could work well for them.
Her research could improve food production, especially for small farmers in developing countries.
Photo: Chiwimbo Gwenambira
Think of a kitchen sink, with taps that supply water and drains that remove it. What happens when the drain stops working? The sink gets clogged.
The same happens with the earth. The world’s population is expected to touch 8.5 billion in the next 15 years. Reduced rainfall and overuse of natural resources are hindering the planet’s ability to meet food demands.
Princess Adeji, a doctoral student in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University, studies how to grow multiple crops on the same land. Her research could increase crop production, especially for small farmers in developing countries.
Photo: Princess Adeji
Farmers use insecticides to keep insects away from their crops. But insecticides can be expensive and toxic, posing a risk to the environment and human health.
An alternative is to use natural repellents made from plants. These repellents have a smell that insects don’t like, so the insects stay away from things with that smell.
Elizabeth Bandason, a doctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University, is interested in figuring out what’s going on in the brains and nervous systems of insects when they smell a repellent. Her research has the potential to provide a safe and affordable way to protect plants while keeping the environment safe from toxic insecticides.
Photo: Elizabeth Bandason