Assistant Professor; and Endowed Chair in Bio-economy Sustainability Management, NSERC/Egg Farmers of Canada Industrial Research Chair in Sustainability
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
PhD, Interdisciplinary (Ecological Economics), Dalhousie University (2010)
Master of Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University (2007)
BSc, Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Victoria (2004)
Ecological economist Nathan Pelletier is ramping up his research on food-system sustainability issues
IF YOU THOUGHT THAT OUR FOOD WORRIES were largely a thing of the prehistoric past, solved by an improved understanding of breeding, planting, storage and distribution, think again.
Complex supply chains, shifting consumer demands, political environments and increasing climate unpredictability make getting that omelet on your plate as complicated as competing with predators for your dinner.
Enter Nathan Pelletier, an ecological economist and industrial ecologist who is using supply chain models and databases instead of rocks and spears in an attempt to better manage contemporary agri-food systems for sustainability objectives.
An exemplar of interdisciplinary research, he holds professorial appointments in the Faculty of Management and Arts and Sciences department of Biology, as well as the Endowed Chair in Bio-economy Sustainability Management and the NSERC/Egg Farmers of Canada Industrial Research Chair in Sustainability.
At UBC’s Okanagan campus, Pelletier’s research is motivated by the recognition that sustainability is central to promoting human welfare and social justice.
“For me, sustainability is about managing our activities so as to maintain the conditions necessary to our well-being,” he says.
“Our understanding of these conditions, which span resource, environmental and socio-economic considerations, continues to evolve and to expand. Moreover, there is no universally accepted definition of sustainability. Priorities in sustainability management will, ultimately, reflect the context-specific values of stakeholders.”
“Sustainable” for some refers to energy-efficiency and reducing carbon footprints, whereas others may define it as being organic, fair-trade certified or renewable. Pelletier’s expertise is in applying a systems perspective to understanding sustainability risks, opportunities and trade-offs across supply chains, technologies, and management strategies in order to support interested individuals, firms and organizations in sustainability management.
THE CYCLE OF LIFE
Pelletier started gaining management experience while completing a biology Co-op term with the BC government’s Aquaculture Development Branch, where he helped develop standards and guidelines for organic salmon farming. After working with a range of stakeholders who had differing perspectives and goals, Pelletier recognized there was a need for a more structured and systematic way to think about sustainability.
“It was an eye-opener to interact with the various groups who had such diverse opinions,” he says. “I was intrigued about how individuals prioritize their sustainability goals and compromises.”
This motivated Pelletier on to graduate studies with the aim of clarifying and better defining food system sustainability issues in order to facilitate decision-making. During this time, he studied the resource flows and emissions characteristic of a wide variety of industrial agri-food supply chains, and how these relate to sustainability challenges at local, regional and global scales. Here, he was one of the first researchers in North America to apply a life-cycle approach to study agri-food systems.
“Life-cycle thinking refers to a management approach that takes all of the components of a supply chain into consideration—in other words, a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach. This perspective helps identify opportunities for system efficiency improvement each step of the way.”
THE GO-TO GUY
While completing his doctoral research, Pelletier met a colleague who asked for feedback about a particular study addressing the carbon footprint of beef production. This cascaded into extensive and diverse collaborations with other researchers, and Pelletier quickly became the “go-to” guy for agri-food life-cycle assessment studies. And then one day, the Egg Farmers of Canada came knocking.
“There are more than 1,000 registered egg farmers in Canada,” Pelletier says. “On average, Canadians eat 21 dozen eggs per year. That’s almost an egg per person per day.”
The egg industry is also a significant contributor to the Canadian agricultural sector: in 2016, Canada produced poultry and egg products worth more than $1 billion, while the country’s consumption of eggs and egg products has consistently increased every year since 2010 (statistics: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).
According to Pelletier, egg farming is highly diverse and farms range in size from several hundred hens to more than 400,000, and farm efficiencies vary.
‘GREENING’ THE EGG INDUSTRY
Pelletier says today’s egg industry provides “an excellent example of both the opportunities and challenges of managing contemporary food production systems for sustainability objectives.”
One of his current research initiatives is focused on creating new science-based information and decision-support tools to help “green” the egg industry in a streamlined manner.
Pelletier recently completed a life-cycle assessment of the Canadian egg industry in order to develop national sustainability benchmarks, and to identify both best practices and opportunities for improvement.
Ultimately, Pelletier, with the help of his growing team of graduate students and collaborating researchers nationally and internationally, hopes to provide a reliable database and sustainability assessment tools that will enable farmers to measure, set goals and report their sustainability progress.
“If all egg producers were to achieve the best practice outcomes of our leading egg farmers and take advantage of green technology opportunities, I believe the industry could achieve up to a 50 per cent reduction in their current environmental footprint.”
Pelletier suggests that his most recent study points toward considerable opportunities for the Canadian egg industry: “Our results should be seen as providing inspiration for initiatives intended to improve the sustainability of Canadian eggs and egg products.”
Dr. Pelletier is keen to work with high-calibre undergraduate, Masters, PhD and post-doctoral researchers who have a strong interest in research and publication in the field of food-system sustainability. Pelletier encourages students to propose their own research questions, or apply to work in the context of his funded research projects. Find out more on the Food Systems PRISM Lab website.
“Life-cycle thinking refers to a management approach that takes all of the components of a supply chain into consideration—in other words, a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach.”
TO OUR FOOD
Pelletier credits Canadian consumers for their growing interest in the sustainability of food, while acknowledging there is a lack of knowledge about where our food comes from and how it is produced. He points out that some 60 years ago, 90 per cent of Canadians had a direct relationship with someone in the farming industry. Today, that number has dropped to 10 per cent.
“We are distanced from agricultural practices and yet surprisingly we have a high level of confidence in our food supply systems,” he says.
“There’s a complex story behind how we feed ourselves and, for the most part, we are strangely incurious about it. Yet many of us have quite strong opinions and preconceptions regarding sustainability in food production.
“The counter-intuitive insights one often confronts when researching sustainability issues from a supply chain perspective, challenge and force re-examination of many of our preconceptions. This is an important element of what attracted me to this work.”
It also motivates Pelletier beyond the campus. He and his family live on a small farm in Coldstream, BC, about 50 km northeast of UBC’s Okanagan campus, where they garden and raise sheep, pigs and, of course, a few chickens. This agri-living is not new to Pelletier, who grew up on a small farm in Ontario.
“During every stage of my life, I’ve attached strong components of my identity around my food consumption choices. In a way, raising some of our own food is in juxtaposition to my research about industrial food systems, which provide most of the food that Canadians consume.
“For my family, it’s meaningful to have the same direct connection to food that I grew up with. Living in the Okanagan has provided us with this great lifestyle opportunity.”
Story by Christine Zeindler
Video by UBC Studios
Cover photo courtesy of Nathan Pelletier