Catherine Badgley on Our Food Sytem


I decided this semester to write a profile about a former professor of mine, and a very respected researcher in her field. The profile wound up being about the research that interests her and the food system. 

It was an amazing experience firstly, because I learnt about some key interviewing skills, but also because I learnt about a new field. I knew nearly nothing about biodiversity in the context of food and seeing the passion Dr. Catherine Badgley has for her field inspires me in my own work, even now.


It is 1987 and it is a drought year in the western US as Catherine Badgley looks across the public land that is leased to local ranchers. She sees overgrazed land and a few skinny cows on the bare ground. She sees the bleached bones of a cow gathering dust.

This is what pushes Badgley to speak out about the true nature of our food system and raise food in such a way that native ecosystems can thrive rather than be devastated by the way we use them.

UntitledBadgley, 64, is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan and also a hobby farmer at her home in Chelsea. From her own experiences with farming and her research at the University she has become very familiar with organic practices.

Not only is she interested in organic farming in her own life, but she also sees the practice as being plausible on a larger scale to bring healthy food to most Americans. Several years ago she co-authored an important paper to this effect, outlining the feasibility of organic yields matching those of existing crops. This paper has been hugely cited and seems to be an area of contention in the field. While many deny organics believing they yield too little edible food, Badgley and her colleagues say it is an entirely viable large-scale option and this sort of research is the first step toward creating a more sustainable food system.

Growing food in her own garden has helped Badgley in her research. “It’s given me a sense of how feasible it is to grow food for yourself and also to have a diet over the year based on what’s seasonally available” says Badgley. “It tastes good, it’s healthy, and I know how it was grown.”

“Seasonal eating is pretty simple,” she says. Badgley planned ahead by storing vegetables like onions, potatoes, and winter squash and is now looking forward to the fresh fruits and vegetables she can harvest this summer.

She is inspired by her own farming, but Badgley is especially driven by observing the state of our current food landscape. The existing subsidy system, for example, “encourages overproduction of the grains and of the milk, and that drives the prices down,” she says. This means that, at least in the livestock business, the larger corporations end up on top and unfortunately these tend to be confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Beside the moral concerns of the confinement of animals, there are other costs associated with the practice. According to Badgley, the food that we get from these operations is not as cheap as it seems. “A lot of its costs are not paid at the checkout counter. They’re paid in our health system and environmental clean up and other kinds of long-term environmental damage,” she says. This could mean that the organic food that we deem to be “so expensive” may in fact be cheaper than the mass produced food we see at Wal-mart.

She is currently trying to combat these issues through a campus-wide program called The Sustainable Food Initiative. Along with a group of other faculty on campus, Badgley is fostering interest in the sustainable food system at an academic level to transform the way we think about food intellectually and further promote leadership in the field. The program has already hired four faculty members toward this goal.

As Badgley continues hiring faculty and writing about sustainability she hopes to create a new and growing dialogue about the possibilities for sustainable agriculture. “Species and ecosystems around the world are being devastated by our current industrial system of agriculture,” she says. But she intends for those dust-caked and starving cows to be the last memories she has of our broken food system as she continues her long career toward sustainability.


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