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Fall 2010, Issue 12

Connecting Agriculture, Food Production, and the Environment

Timothy GriffinTimothy Griffin, PhD, joined the faculty of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in 2008. He is director of the school's Agriculture, Food and Environment Program and is a faculty steering committee member of the interdisciplinary Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) Program. Griffin is an agriculture expert interested in the relationships between agriculture, food production, and the environment, and also in the development and implementation of sustainable food production systems. His current research includes environmental impacts of agriculture (nutrient flows, carbon retention and loss, climate change), and impacts of policy on adoption of agricultural practices and systems.

Griffin received his PhD from Michigan State University, majoring in crop and soil science. After completing postdoctoral training at Michigan State University, he joined the University of Maine Cooperative Extension as an assistant, then associate, extension professor. He was also an extension "sustainable agriculture specialist" with the University of Maine, the first such position in the U.S. He continued at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension while adding on an appointment as associate professor in sustainable cropping systems for the Maine Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Just prior to coming to Tufts, Griffin worked as research agronomist and lead scientist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) New England Plant Soil and Water Lab in Orono, Maine.

A major aspect of Griffin's current work is to provide agricultural expertise to a variety of projects across Tufts. One of his broadest projects is studying the production and availability of food in the northeastern United States. "The densely populated area stretching from Virginia to Maine is not in any way self-sufficient at providing the foods that we think of as healthy," says Griffin. "From a food security standpoint, is it really a good idea to have 85 or 90% of your fruit and vegetables coming from somewhere else? We’re not thinking that if we changed our food system we could grow all of our fruit and vegetables, but maybe if we’re at 10 or 12% now, we might realistically get out to maybe 20 or 25%." The baseline data Griffin and his students are collecting on where various crops are grown in the Northeast will be used in the development of a more sustainable food production system.

Equitable access to food is also one of Griffin's priorities. He is mapping northeastern "food deserts," areas that lack access to healthful food. Many food deserts exist in low-income urban and rural areas that lack adequate grocery stores. Without access to the time and transportation needed to travel to a distant grocery store, residents frequently must rely on the low-quality food often found in convenience stores. "If those populations lack access to what we would typically call healthy foods, are their opportunities for us to increase the amount of those foods that we grow in the Northeast, and then target them to the populations that currently lack access to them?" asks Griffin. "We want to try to answer questions of opportunities and barriers for farms and businesses." Many of Griffin's students are interested in the social justice aspects of access to healthful food.

Griffin is also involved with a Friedman School project on innovation in food service in public schools. "My interest in that is actually farm to school," Griffin says. "How do school districts interact with the agriculture around them and get local food into the schools?" The group is profiling three school districts in New England, looking at how the districts interact with the agricultural community and trying to identify common factors across different types of districts that allow them to be innovative.

As a faculty steering committee member for the WSSS program, Griffin works with faculty and students across Tufts on agricultural aspects of water use. WSSS is a certificate program that provides graduate students with interdisciplinary perspectives and tools to manage water-related problems around the world. "My involvement in WSSS was a natural because agriculture is the biggest water user on the planet. Globally, populations that are malnourished also don't have access to clean water."

Local, regional, and national agricultural policies are integral to a food production system, stimulating the production of some crops and hindering the production of others. As such, to change the system requires changing the policies. "What kinds of policies are either out there or might be developed that either encourage or discourage different [food production] systems, and who gets impacted by that?" Griffin asks. He will use his thirty years of experience with agriculture production systems in many different geographical areas to advise policy makers on the relationships between agriculture and food production and the environment. "If you asked me to encapsulate what we are about, it's to use good science to make good policy," he says.

Griffin is a strong proponent of interdisciplinary work. He believes many important questions can only be answered by groups of people who typically would not be working together. "The questions might be environmental, or they might be nutrition or food access," says Griffin. "We're very deliberate about the idea that we may not be expert in all those areas, but we're able to see across them, and start thinking about what the connections are between them." What's important, Griffin believes, is to identify a gap in the information, and to go out specifically to try to collect the information needed to fill the gap, and to develop a common language so people from diverse fields can work together. He enjoys being a connector of disciplines, and welcomes collaborations from across Tufts.

For more information, please go to Timothy Griffin's faculty profile.



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