Dr. John Volpe
Associate Professor & Principal Investigator - Ecogastronomy Research Group
School of Environmental Studies
I and my students use quantitative analyses of food and wine production systems to reveal linkages between ecological and social sustainability, “quality”, and the primacy of place … “Ecogastronomy”
My lab group is currently undergoing a major pivot, moving from conventional marine and terrestrial conservation ecology to one that explicitly addresses food/wine as the physical manifestation of the reciprocal co-evolutionary process of a culture and its environmental context – a move that not only reflects my own intellectual ontogeny (and reconnects to my past lives as a professional cook and sommelier) but also solves a long standing dissatisfaction: the failure of ecology as a tool to solve conservation issues which persist due to lack of political will and systemic economic barriers. For me, conservation ecology now resembles an autopsy – proficient in declaring a cause of death but unable to save the patient.
The conservation challenges we face today manifest as measurable deviations of ecological patterns and processes (climate change, invasive species, novel ecosystems, fallout from the myriad forms of anthropogenic appropriation etc., etc…) so it is natural to think of them as “ecological problems”. However, you don’t have to scratch an “ecological problem” very hard before you reveal its political / economic / social / cultural causation. Observed deviations of ecological patterns and processes are symptoms caused by underlying political / economic / social / cultural diseases. In short, I have had my fill of treating symptoms while ignoring the diseases.
Not surprisingly given its inherent limitations, conservation ecology is constrained to problem identification and is not positioned towards problem solutions (thank you ES Adjunct Professor Elin Kelsey for the terminology, though the finger pointing is all me). This position is likely to aggravate many in the conservation community who hold tight the belief that one unit of scientific knowledge translates to one unit of social benefit. Perhaps this is so in fields such as medicine and engineering where advancements are often perceived to benefit all. But, in ecological conservation the narrative is immediately contextualized in terms of perceived winners and losers. The overarching message one takes away from popular media is that conservation costs – it surely costs collectively and, if we are truly serious, it will cost each of us individually. Among the largest hurdles to achieving conservation goals lies in convincing people to behave in ways they perceive to be against their own best interest – a perspective reinforced and protected by capitalist political systems (I’m no socialist, just saying…). While admittedly an oversimplification, who hasn’t encountered the nature versus economy argument ad nauseam?
The secret sauce of most conservation “success stories” is the alignment of conservation goals with collective and individual benefits. In such scenarios, conservation doesn’t cost, it pays. You can probably think of numerous examples spanning the individual (health benefits of bicycling over driving or eating less meat) to the global (diminishing costs of alternative energy production). In such circumstances the former negative feedback loops that inhibited progress morph into auto-catalytic positive feedback loops that incentivize greater rates of progress. Here, short term personal benefits yield longer term collective benefits. These complex systems of negative and positive feedbacks are where my past experiences working in the food and wine sectors intersect with my life as a conservation ecologist.
Food is our most direct and intimate connection with nature. Foods, wines, and materials that have provenance tend to be seen as higher quality than generic analogues. The most granular of provenance is a terroir product – a product originating from one specific place characterized by unique and irreproducible traits particular to that place (it is worth noting that no terroir product exits without some form of human intervention – culture is a key terroir component). A terroir product is a physical manifestation of the co-evolution of a people with their environment. Because scale of production is constrained by local / regional ecological processes, such products cannot be mass produced and retain unique and irreproducible traits particular to that place. Scales of production that exceed what local eco-cultural processes can support rely on external inputs to make up the difference. The greater the reliance on external inputs, the further a product moves towards “commodity” and away from “terroir”. These are value-laden terms seen by many as pretentious but the fact remains that there is a strong negative correlation between the inherent terroir of a product and its environmental footprint (a term I use loosely here) relative to that of its commodity analogue.
So, from all this a hypothesis begins to take shape: robust and lasting sustainability lies not in greater efficiency through the adoption of ever greater commoditization and efficiencies that yield a sterile and generic existence. Instead, success lies in aligning short term personal benefits with longer term collective benefits. It turns out that Adam Smith was [almost] right, that the invisible hand of competition does transform self-interest into common good … if we tweak the metrics of self-interest. An individual whose consumptive behaviour measures benefit in terms of quantity of enrichment rather than quantity of material simultaneously maximizes their quality of life while catalyzing collective benefits. This is after all not only the basis of Darwinian evolution (who, not surprisingly, was heavily influenced by Smith) but also at the core of ecological sustainability – individuals acting in their own self interest collectively maximize the stability and resilience of the entire system. However, and this is a big “however”, the friction of space remains intact in “natural systems” making external organic subsidies rare (e.g. migration). Production within natural systems cannot exceed capacity of local processes, external organic subsidies are not an option and as a result, natural systems have no choice but to operate “within their means”. This fact exposes the central challenge to future sustainability: modern human-made systems seek to maximize value through maximizing efficiency which inevitably leads to reducing the friction of space to the greatest degree possible and thus ever greater reliance on external subsidies to produce of ever more homogenous goods. I should reiterate that these are not statements of fact but instead are a series of thought experiments that yield testable hypotheses. The food and wine worlds are perfect venues to test these hypotheses and it is in this direction my lab is now heading. Lastly, please forgive the rambling stream-of-consciousness-like character of this rant. I feel it is important to frame out the future for the lab, if incomplete and only very coarsely. Were this a more thoughtful reflection I would include such themes as Second Law of Thermodynamics, self organized criticality, Panarchy, optimal foraging theory, Jevons’ Paradox, small world networks, Slow Food, appellations / geographic indicators among many more, however, this would turn what is meant to be a brief mission statement into a full length book … which is exactly what I am undertaking at the moment…
In the mean time I am keen to connect with potential students and collaborators who are wrestling with similar conundrums.