“For example, when we say we want ‘good value’ in our products — that term is a euphemistic part of our language — we usually mean that we want to squeeze every component of the food value chain as much as possible. I hope our work makes this tendency more visible and less tenable. Our food system can’t be just or sustainable if it is predicated on paying as little as we can to farmers, farm laborers and food chain workers, then devaluing the worth of soil, clean water, clean air and public health.”
– Ricardo Salvador
Ricardo Salvador is the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization. UCS works on a range of issues, including clean energy, climate change, and food and agriculture.
He is internationally recognized and respected for his dedication to advocating and working for a food system that is healthier and more just.
Prior to joining UCS, Salvador was a program officer for food, health and well-being at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. His background in agriculture and food systems is both broad and deep. He has worked as an associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State University (where he collaborated with students to help establish a student-run organic farm, and with other faculty members to develop the first sustainable agriculture graduate program in the U.S., which he chaired). Salvador also worked as an extension agent with Texas A&M University.
Along with Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Olivier De Schutter, he has called for a national food policy.
I first met Salvador in 2008, when he was with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. He offered powerful observations about inequities in the food system then…and does so now.
Q: You have an incredibly interesting background. You’re a trained agronomist and taught the first sustainable agriculture class at a land-grant university (in 1989). You’ve worked for a storied philanthropic and social change organization (W.K. Kellogg Foundation). Now you’re a director and senior scientist at one of the world’s leading nonprofit science advocacy organizations. What are your observations about your journey?
Salvador: I’m driven by the global need for social justice. The “journey” you refer has been about learning how best, and where, to pursue that goal. During my upbringing in southern Mexico, I had first-hand experience with all kinds of injustices around me. Many of these involved my Native American family, but all of them touched on how we produce our food.
At first, I turned to studying science and agriculture on the mistaken assumption that technological knowledge would help indigenous people to better produce their own food. As I gained experience, I realized there are historical and structural reasons for the great injustices we still see in the food system.
Even so, “establishment science” has been an important tool for me. It was powerful to be inside “the system,” first as a graduate student and then faculty member, at Iowa State University, to understand that language and worldview. This has actually helped me to more effectively advocate food justice issues.
I think there is a false dichotomy between the supposed “objectivity” of science and the intentionality of “advocacy.” From the moment we ask a “scientific” question and determine what we’re going to investigate and how, we’ve already made value-laden decisions. We’re explicitly stating what matters most to us. As a human pursuit, there is always a degree of subjectivity in the “scientific process.” I learned this well during the time I worked for the land-grant university in Iowa.
Iowa in the 1980s already faced huge environmental challenges. The university needed scientists and researchers to engage communities to solve those problems. That’s really the reason the land-grant universities were created to begin with: to connect science and communities. Despite the challenges of working in the belly of the industrial agriculture beast, it was a good place and time for me to be there, because everything about the situation led to the development of a sustainable agriculture program there. The graduates of that program are now populating key positions as faculty members and extension agents, program officers at major foundations, program leaders in government agencies, and most recently a member of our first cohort was named to succeed Wes Jackson as president of The Land Institute, a major distinction.
This is one key way to transform the food system, through the leaders who will shape the thinking of future farmers and food entrepreneurs. Even we at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have benefited from that graduate program in sustainable agriculture, as one of its graduates is currently working on agricultural resilience as one of our Kendall Fellows.
I’ve also seen the power of science combined with philanthropy and social entrepreneurship to address sustainability and justice issues. While I was there, my colleagues and I were able to invest W.K. Kellogg Foundation resources to seed such important work as first lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America, AGree, National Farm to School Food Network, FoodCorps, School Food Focus, Good Food Network, Food & Society Fellows, Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Fair Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and many organizations, large and small, whose work now benefits us all. These ranged from the Sankofa Community Development Corporation and Market Umbrella in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Will Allen’s Growing Power in Milwaukee, Carlos Santana’s Milagro Foundation, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. It has been a privilege to support and enable really bright and ambitious people in their successful efforts to improve our food system.
My current work feels like a culmination, and perhaps a natural consequence, of a long trajectory of work. The Union of Concerned Scientists feels like home. Not only can I freely be an advocate for sustainability, social and racial justice, it’s exactly what the organization expects. I can be what I am and say what I need to say without looking over my shoulder. It is liberating.
Q: You began your career in Agricultural Extension, a part of the land-grant university system. Extension is much in the news these days and is in a period of transition. Much of this transition focuses on the public research mission. What observations might you share with our readers about this?
Salvador: Extension is a key part of the land-grant system, but it is not well-known. And it’s one of the places where the promise of the land-grant system has been vastly underfulfilled. Extension works best when it provides a two-way flow of information, connecting communities to scientists at universities. The idea was for this interaction to shape and define research agendas that served the public interest. Instead, what actually happened was that scientists pursued their own technological agenda and ended up dictating what farmers needed to do to be successful, and that often involved very narrow business and industrial criteria. Farmer and rural well-being, along with ecology, were overlooked.
The message from researchers to farmers was “you will succeed if you apply my science, and if you don’t apply my science, you deserve to fail.” That is a direct quotation from an eminent scientist in the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University. This was said during the height of the 1980s farm crisis, which was caused by a financial bubble. When commodity prices crashed, farmers were forced off their land, because they were over-leveraged. Guided by the land-grant universities, farming had “developed” on an agribusiness model. As an Iowa farmer wisely summarized for me: “You basically leverage someone else’s money (through loans) to make a living.” When that model failed in the ’80s it led to a crisis that spurred farmland consolidation and larger operations.
[Editor’s note: To learn more about the 1980s farm crisis, view this 2013 documentary produced by Iowa Public Television. The documentary is – in part – based on the 1990 book The Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s, written by Iowa State University economist Neil Harl].
That attitude has too often driven the relationship between land-grant university scientists and the farming population they are supposed to be serving. At UCS we’ve commissioned research that shows farmers are, of course, fully aware of this dynamic, and that there is deep-seated resentment within Midwestern rural communities, whose people feel they have been driven to less sustainability as a result. “We have been turned into serfs” is a common sentiment. It’s also led to a loss of skills in agroecology and driven farmers into models of agribusinesses that aren’t sustainable for the majority of them in the long run.
The research funding model has also hindered Extension. Traditionally, the land-grant university was primarily publicly supported. Support for that mission has depended upon the advocacy and support of rural citizens and farmers. The number of people farming matters: by federal funding formula, as the number of farmers has diminished, so has financial support for land-grant universities, together with Extension’s traditional support base. Yet expenses for research have gone up. So now we have the private sector leveraging a massive long-term public investment (land-grant universities) to serve their private interests.
[Editor’s note: Read our Q&A with Dr. Kenneth Quinn of the World Food Prize for his perspective about the public investment in agricultural research and private sector agricultural research].
Because private interests are leveraging public investment, any pretense of subjectivity in the research agenda has disappeared. That is the contest being waged: between public and private research interests. Sadly, it often is not apparent to taxpayers that this struggle over public dollars and the research agenda of their public universities is taking place at all, and, of course, the public relations and fundraising efforts of these universities are very self-serving.
I am critical of the trajectory, but not of the mission and institution of the land-grant university. Sadly, by aligning with the interests of agribusiness, land-grants have supported the concentration of wealth that has displaced the very people they were created to serve. To quote Dee Houk, the founder of VISA International, there is no failure so great as failing to fulfill the purpose for which you were created.
Q: You’ve co-authored a call for a national food policy. How hopeful are you that a presidential candidate may pick this issue up?
Salvador: I’m hopeful but not naïve. I understand that it will take a lot of work over a period of time to raise the issue to the level where politicians will understand how central food issues are to every major issue facing our nation. Any incoming president will have to worry about national security, widening income inequality, immigration, energy independence and the threat of global warming. All these things are connected to the food system. There is a smart, sophisticated way to deal with this, through a coherent national food policy. Our focus groups show that there’s a great deal of upside for a politician that recognizes this.
The food system we have has developed as the result of public investment over a period of a century and a half. It has been so wildly successful for us wealthy people that it has become invisible to many of us. We have to work to make it visible so more of us are aware how much of our current food system is based on exploiting both people and nature. There’s a reason we are unaware of the actual costs of that system. The actual costs are a combination of things we pay for and things we quite explicitly leave off the books and don’t account for. The unaccounted things are therefore tougher to see.
I would say our current work at UCS is somewhat analogous to boiling water. You apply heat and for longest time it looks like nothing is happening. But, eventually, steady application of heat produces irrepressible results. In this case, we’re using policy analysis, science, organizing, advocacy, cross-sector partners and working with receptive politicians (those who realize they need to do something about equality and social justice) to apply political heat. Again, I’m not naïve, but I do want to be an opportunist. And the opportunity is this: Every time our nation goes through the process of selecting a new executive, there is a chance to replace poor policies with better ones.
We’re working hard with the finalist presidential candidates to get them to adopt our Plate of the Union initiative; we’ll work with whomever that person is. We’re invested for the long haul and know this will be a long-term proposition.
Q: What are your biggest concerns?
Salvador: Racial inequality and exploitation. I am concerned about the resistance of many to be open-minded about these issues. These things exist in our world and we need to make the moral decision that we don’t want to support exploitation. I think it’s important to point out the things that are all around us that we don’t normally see.
For example, when we say we want “good value” in our products — that term is a euphemistic part of our language — we usually mean that we want to squeeze every component of the food value chain as much as possible. I hope our work makes this tendency more visible and less tenable. Our food system can’t be just or sustainable if it is predicated on paying as little as we can to farmers, farm laborers and food chain workers, then devaluing the worth of soil, clean water, clean air and public health.
Most people know that there are sweatshops involved in the manufacture of textiles because there has been a lot of news around this, including unsafe working conditions that have led to disastrous fires, fatal stampedes and the like. That type of manufacturing environment is driven by our desire for cheap jeans and blouses. The same model exists in our food production, where exemptions to our laws allow the most vulnerable people in our society to be exposed to brutal working conditions, including exposure to some of the most toxic chemicals there are, with no workplace protections or the medical and workman’s compensation that most of us would expect as basic provisions of any employment. All for the sake of “cheap food.” If we knew how that is really achieved, I don’t think we’d be so boastful of our “cheap food.”
We need to make this broadly known so that we can begin imagining a set of global practices that don’t rely on exploitation.
A good case study of how this can happen in the food system is the Fair Food Program devised by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and its partners. The program audits farming operations to certify that workers are not exploited. The best part? CIW went beyond pointing out what was horribly wrong with the system. They had the sophistication to understand that whatever would replace the existing abusive system had to be good for everyone, not just workers, but also farmers, buyers and their customers. They viewed farmers as partners, not adversaries. President Obama recognized this group with a presidential medal. Now the Fair Food Program is accepted by tomato growers in the southeast and is extending to dairy production in the northeast. It’s supporters include large firms such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods … it’s a great story. Prior to CIW’s work, modern-day slavery, sexual exploitation and wage theft in farm fields were invisible. What CIW taught all of us is that you can make these things visible, and that it is possible to overcome the worst aspects of the food system by confronting them openly and being creative about better ways to do things for everyone involved.
Along similar lines, President Obama recently signed a bill prohibiting trade with nations that sanction the utilization of slave labor for food production. Made in a Free World has a nice online tool that allows you to see how you benefit from modern-day wage exploitation and slavery. The reality is that these things have been with us as long as there have been human societies, but in the 21st century we should be working to abolish all forms of human exploitation.
Another current concern is 2016 presidential contest. I’m mostly thinking about how we raise these issues to the candidates and their supporters.
If we get food right, we get lots of other things right: health, environment, social equity and more.
I will always be driven by battling to eliminate the great social inequity that’s embodied in our food system. There is a great irony in this: the people whose work, labor and ingenuity make it all possible are those who can’t benefit from the outcome of the system.
Q: What’s inspiring you?
Salvador: I am inspired by the people doing the work I’ve described: CIW and the wave of entrepreneurs working to meet demand for good food (food that’s produced without exploiting people and nature). In the last 10 years, the rise in political power of food chain workers – they are becoming more and more powerful – has been particularly inspiring.
I’m also inspired by the corporate players recognizing the need to go in the right direction. For example, Panera is really trying to do the right thing by giving us clean food, free of artificial ingredients and antibiotics.
Across the spectrum, good things are happening, there is a great deal of creativity, energy and intersections of good ideas across the entire food value chain. This energy and creativity is embodied in the HEAL Food Alliance, a coalition of grassroots communities, farmers, workers, policy reformists and consumer advocates. As members of HEAL, we are explicitly working to grow the political power of the food movement so that we can force food system change.