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Think Like a Farmer, Honor the Harvest

Erin Fitzgerald

What do sustainability and nutrition have in common? Everything. That’s according to Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president of global sustainability for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

She addressed the Oregon Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Educational Conference as keynote speaker on May 4, conveying the importance of consumers and farmers working together to preserve the world’s resources while feeding America and a growing global population. Fitzgerald leads efforts to enhance dairy’s contributions to a more sustainable food system.

At the conference, Fitzgerald addressed the world’s need for food and the natural resources needed to produce food, stating that:

“We are exceeding the caring capacity of this earth. And since the global middle class will triple by 2030, we need to be prepared to provide more food. But how? We are losing 50 acres of farmland an hour due to urban encroachment. Our farmland is our rainforest. It is our nation’s greatest natural resource.”

However, she offered a message of hope. “I absolutely do believe we can solve for this. But it’s going to take an incredible amount of innovation,” she said. Fitzgerald addressed three major pathways toward sustainable food systems:


   Reduce waste and inefficiencies.

   Manage natural resource constraints.

   Advance farm technologies for crops in a bio economy.

Fitzgerald sees incredible benefits to advancement in technology. “By unlocking the potential of agriculture we will be able to cycle and manage carbon through agriculture, to solve for climate change,” she said. She followed that the biggest need is to create a revolution where consumers commit to adopt a farmers mentality to leave this earth as a legacy for future generations. “How are we going to get people on a sustainability pathway if we don’t already have the values and commitment to leave this world better than we found it?” said Fitzgerald.

She encouraged nutrition professionals by saying, “Take comfort in this stat that 48% of our land, air and water is in the stewardship of our farmers. They are truly providing these ecosystem services that we have taken for granted.” She went on to explain, “Dairy was the first industry sector to make a commitment to climate change.”

But aside from the sustainable practices that are ingrained in a farmer’s way of life, Fitzgerald also points out how important the cow is to our food system. “Because of the cow, we don’t have to wait for plant growing cycles, but we get nutrition year-round,” she said. “We take that for granted, but globally, around the world, to be able to provide nutrition 365 days while you are waiting for the crops to come in is a very big deal.”

As for the consumer’s role in sustainable nutrition, she explained that we are currently throwing away a third of the earth’s food. “Farmers are not going to have the chance to get this right unless people are eating healthy and not throwing their food away,” she said. “They are not honoring the harvest. What we do on our plates that has the greatest significance to the environmental impact.”

Fitzgerald encouraged her audience to create a ‘food-cycle movement,’ which includes: nourish people, eat right (leftovers too), get food to the food insecure, do your part in your community, and create a social handprint with food. She said, “That’s why I get excited to talk to [dietitians]. If someone is not there working with the consuming public on behavior change, then we won’t be able to solve for climate change.”

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