Brian Roe, Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at Ohio State University, will be speaking at the inaugural New York City Food Tank Summit, “Focusing on Food Loss and Food Waste,” which will be held in partnership with Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) and with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and The Fink Family Foundation on September 13, 2017.
Roe received his bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he was named as part of the 1990 Truman Scholar class. He later received a PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland and then worked on food safety and food labeling policy issues as a Staff Fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Leading the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative and serving on the leadership team for the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation, his current research includes the economics of food waste, local foods, and farm nutrient management.
Food Tank spoke with Roe about his work at Ohio State University, where he and fellow faculty members incorporat community outreach and engagement around food waste into their scholarship.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Brian Roe (BR): I am an agricultural economist by training. The word economy stems from the Greek ‘oikonomos’—‘oikos’ (household) and ‘nomos’ (manage). In the time of the ancient Greeks, perhaps nothing could be more anathema to household management—to the economy—than the wasting of the precious food stocks coaxed from the rugged land and uncertain seas that sustained those ancient cultures. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that we will or even should attempt to achieve zero food waste (ask any economist—getting things perfect is usually immensely expensive and rarely economically optimal), the amount of food that is wasted in the United States and in most developed countries is simply too much. As the son and brother of farmers and as a faculty member at a Land Grant university, I was originally inspired to work to reduce the amount of food that is wasted because of the potential for gains on several fronts simultaneously: improving local and global food security, improving our stewardship of natural resources and the environment, and improving the economic efficiency of farms, businesses, and households.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
BR: There are so many motivated and committed people thinking deeply and working tirelessly on the topic of food waste—there is so much incredible energy on this topic right now. However, my training as an economist makes me aware that good intentions and efforts can still lead to policies and practices with unintended outcomes and suboptimal results. I hope work being done by my colleagues and me can help anticipate some of these stumbling blocks and steer policy and practice in the area of food waste to a better outcome.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
BR: My parents. I grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1970s and 1980s—milking was at 5am and 5pm every day of the year—no exceptions, as the cows didn’t seem to understand human calendars. My parents took no sick days, and no days off during planting or harvest (let alone for vacation!). The dedication, passion, and constancy my parents displayed to our cows and our land and us as kids was, in retrospect, amazing, and the work of the farm offered so many opportunities for my brothers and me to spend a great time with my parents and to practice learning responsibility and positive work habits that stay with us today.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
BR: The circular economy is a fantastic paradigm for sustainability, but when it comes to the food system, it has to include full participation of consumers or the circle is broken and the potential for societal gains promised by the circular economy model is lost. The biggest opportunity is to design policies and programs that allow consumers to easily step into their role within the circular economy for the food system. Figuring out simple ways for households to reduce the amount of food wasted and to redirect food scraps and other organic waste to nourish the resource base will be critical in seizing this opportunity.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
BR: I’m continually impressed by my local community of Columbus, Ohio—there are a seemingly endless string of people from the farming, food processing, food retail, government, and nonprofit sectors who have taken great personal and professional risks to improve the local and regional food system. As a tenured faculty member at Ohio State, I am inspired by some of my younger colleagues (Jill Clark, Michelle Kaiser, Colleen Spees, and Kareem Usher, to name a few) who have followed their passions for the food system early in their careers. Even though academic tenure is on the line and it might be easier and safer to sit in their offices and crank out another journal article, they actively incorporate meaningful community outreach and engagement into their scholarship about the food system.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
BR: Engaging consumers to help improve the sustainability of the food system.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
BR: Shop your fridge first! Get one of the many apps that allows you to put in leftover ingredients that will otherwise go to waste and generate a great recipe.
The NYC Food Tank Summit is now sold out. Register HERE to watch the livestream on Facebook. A few tickets remain for the Summit Dinner at Blue Hill Restaurant with a special menu from Chef Dan Barber. Apply to attend HERE. If you live in New York City, join us on September 14 for our FREE outdoor dance workout led by Broadway performers, called Garjana, featuring many great speakers raising awareness about food waste issues. Register HERE.