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Interview with Martin Heller

📷 University of Michigan

Journalist: Renu Rajamagesh

Renu: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to SciSection Radio. I'm Renu, and today I'm joined by Dr. Martin Heller. He is a research specialist at the University of Michigan, and he specializes in the fields of food systems, nutrition and their environmental impacts. Hello, Dr. Martin Heller. Thank you very much for joining me today.

Martin Heller: Thanks for having me.

Renu: OK, so to start off, for those who are unaware, a lot of your work focuses on making these things called LCAs. Can you tell us what those are?

Martin Heller: Yeah. LCA stands for life cycle assessments. And ultimately, lifecycle assessment is a method for accounting for environmental impact. It's really important that we pay attention to which inputs and outputs we're tracking and which boxes they go into and how they contribute to some indicator of the performance of our overall system. In the case of lifecycle assessment, we're looking at indicators of the environmental impact usually of product systems. And the one thing that makes lifecycle assessment unique is we're recognizing that those environmental impacts don't only occur when we use that product or even when we produce that product, but they occur throughout the lifecycle. And usually this goes back to mining natural resources out of the ground, you know, drilling for oil and all of the other things that go into extracting minerals and other natural resources, converting those into materials and then ultimately into products, transporting, distributing those products, using them. Oftentimes, there's a lot of environmental impact in the use phase. Like, if we're talking about a product, like an automobile takes a lot to produce that automobile. But still, most of the impact occurs when we're actually driving it, when we're actually consuming all of that gasoline and then ultimately disposing of that product as well. So lifecycle assessment is a way of looking at all of those inputs and outputs, characterizing them in terms of how they impact different environmental indicators, greenhouse gas emissions or water quality or things like Eco-System toxicity, and then putting all of those relative to some measure of what that product or service performs so that we can make apples to apples. Comparisons between two different product systems that may look very differently in the way that they behave but provide the same function.

Renu: So you say that you're collecting data from right when the raw materials are mined to its use and its end, so how do you go about collecting all of that data?

Martin Heller: Yeah, it's a lot of data. Fortunately, there are fairly good databases these days. So all of the mining and petroleum refinery and electricity grid and all that stuff is usually information that we're pulling from existing databases. But even just collecting information on the manufacturing and processing that goes into a specific product requires a lot of data collection. And usually that involves working sometimes directly with companies and collecting data on energy use and end material use in their processes, sometimes relying on, you know, nationally collected databases on different things. You know, there's a lot of detective work that goes on and just trying to figure out where to get the best quality data and recognizing that we're not always going to have perfect data. So, you know, it's certainly an estimate. But we strive to get the best the best quality in order to answer the types of questions we're trying to answer with the LCA.

Renu: Did any of your studies yield a particularly surprising result?

Martin Heller: You know, there's always something interesting to come out of them. I mean, I guess if I were to think about one particular study, we did a lifecycle assessment of Beyond Meat's Beyond Burger. So this is a plant based burger that is meant to mimic the taste and behavior of beef. And of course, we knew going in that plant-based foods had much lower impacts than animal based foods and especially beef. But there weren't many examples of, you know, this sort of consumer facing processed product. So certainly, there were some questions. But, you know, after we got a lot of information from Beyond and put all the pieces together still with all of the processing and manufacturing that goes into something like a Beyond Burger, we still saw more than a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission in shifting from beef to the Beyond Burger, more than a 99 percent reduction in water scarcity. 93 percent reduction in land use. So very, very substantial differences.

Renu: So since you've done a lot of research into the environmental impacts. Can you give us any insights on how we can be responsible consumers?

Martin Heller: Yeah, this is a great question, and I think...

Martin Heller:'s particularly challenging when we're thinking about food because there are choices they were faced with every day and there's so many different layers to make decisions on it.

Martin Heller: It can be very easy to land in an indecisive mode where you just don't know how to make a decision. And so it just kind of trudge forward without a whole lot of information or with too much information, perhaps. I think that an important thing is to really try to get clear on what is important. You know, hopefully some of that is informed by science. But ultimately, I think that some of that has to be just what is important to you personally. You know, what are the environmental impacts or the health concerns that are important to you? And those might change. But, you know, I think that it's easier to focus on one or two aspects, learn what you can about that, understand how paying attention to those impacts, whether it's carbon footprints or some nutritional concern. How does paying attention to that influence your buying decisions? And then, you know, then maybe you can think about a different one and fill out some of the tradeoffs.

Martin Heller: So paying attention, thinking about what's most important to you, and, you know, not getting too caught up in the winds of change.

Martin Heller: It can get really confusing quickly.

Renu: So when you think about sustainability, the idea of circular economy comes about. So in terms of food production. Have we made any advancements towards achieving a circular economy?

Martin Heller: That's also a really interesting question. And, you know, ultimately, I think that there's still some uncertainty of how circular economy and sustainability really match up in the end. That's probably going to have to be decided. Circularity in a food system is an interesting piece, right? We should be able to recycle a lot of the nutrients that are involved in foods. That happens to a very small extent in the sense that sewage sludge from our wastewater treatment plants is often reapplied to agricultural fields. You know, paying attention to food waste and where it goes is also important thing in circularity.

Martin Heller: The best thing that can be done there is reducing food waste because it means that we have to produce less food to feed the same number of mouths.

Martin Heller: So, you know, I guess I guess that's a place where if we were focused on circularity and said, wow, you know, if only we could compost all of this food waste and return the nutrients in that food waste back to agricultural fields lands us in a place that isn't necessarily the most sustainable solution right? Because really, it would be better if we just eliminated or avoided as much of that food waste as possible.

Renu: So do you see any foreseeable changes in the future of food production?

Martin Heller: Yeah, I mean, I, I can comment on what I would like to see. We've seen repeated projection studies that look at the increased food demand as we grow as a global population and also as prosperity grows across the globe. And, you know, all of those trends point towards greater demand for food and greater demand for high impact foods like animal-based foods. So ultimately, we're going to need to learn not only how to farm better, how to produce more with fewer inputs and with less impact on the environment. So and, you know, I feel that a lot of those improvements can happen with fairly simple technologies, but I think right alongside that, we need to recognize that, here again, we see some insight from some of the projection studies that estimate what the future carbon emissions will be. Even with very, very generous assumptions on the improvements in agricultural production we're able to make. And basically, they all point at that producing our food is going to take up all of the allowable emissions to stay within the anticipated amount of carbon that we can release in order to meet future climate goals. So alongside with those improvements in agricultural production, we also need to look at our diets and make changes in diets. And most of that points towards reductions in animal-based foods. And this is a place where those of us in the developed world can make huge influence. And I like to caveat that with saying that that doesn't necessarily mean that we all need to go vegan. I mean, certainly that's an option for some people and probably will result in the lowest carbon footprint. But it's not necessary. And there are probably reasons to maintain animals in our agricultural systems.

Martin Heller: But we do need to think about consuming less of those animal-based foods than what we do currently.

Renu: Can you tell me about what made you interested in food and agriculture and the path that you took to become a researcher in this field?

Martin Heller: Well, it's a bit of a winding path, but I'll try to give you a short walk through it. I grew up on a farm in southeast Michigan, so I grew up baling hey and taking animals to the forage fair and, you know, participating in bottle feeding baby lambs in the middle of the winter. But there also wasn't a lot of real promise in farming and in agriculture in the 80s when I was finishing up my primary school. So, I went off and got a few degrees in chemical engineering. And after completing my doctorate, I was I was interested in exploring something different. And I wasn't ready to step into the pharmaceutical biotech industry that I was trained to become a part of. And I spent a year actually in India doing some activist work, primarily with groups that were engaged in a lot of the campaigns around genetic engineering and agriculture and just learned a lot about the impacts of a globalized, industrialized food system, you know, on other parts of the world. But I think also through that perspective, a lot of understanding on how it was influencing my home country as well. So, I came back from that experience really with the intention of doing some farming on my family's lands and stepped into that. When I got back, I, I was into the community supported agriculture movement and the sort of direct producer to consumer relationships that that allowed. But at the same time, I still had a lot of learning to do and how to be a successful farmer. I was looking for some other ways to sort of, you know, pay the rent for a while, and found these fellow chemical engineers at the University of Michigan that were interested in sustainability and environmental impact. And before I knew it, I was doing a postdoc with them at the Center for Sustainable Systems and thinking about sustainable food system from this this life cycle perspective, which was kind of a new thing to me at the time. And, you know, the couple of decades that have followed have been sort of a less than elegant dance between small scale farming and academic research for me. I'm currently not doing any farming. The academic research has become the full-time gig. But certainly, that has influenced my perspective along the way, I would say.

Renu: It was great talking to you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Martin Heller: Yeah. Thanks so much for reaching out, Renu.


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