SS FORUM: Life Cycle Approaches to Food System Sustainability

Event Type: 
Guest Lecture
Dr. Marty Heller
Friday, January 17, 2014 - 2:00pm to 3:30pm
1040 Dana Building
Event Sponsor: 
Center for Sustainable Systems
School of Natural Resources and Environment


Agriculture and food production are arguably the human activities with the largest impact on resource use and environmental sustainability worldwide, and yet we face major food security concerns.  Supplying adequate human nutrition within ecosystem carrying capacities is a key element in the global environmental sustainability challenge.  In the U.S., the appearance of food abundance comes with a heavy carbon footprint, excessive expenditures of fossil fuels to produce a ‘renewable’ resource, and a burden of disease dominated by dietary risk factors. 

This presentation will cover Dr. Heller’s work in applying Industrial Ecology principles – life cycle thinking, life cycle assessment – to the study of food system sustainability.  We will explore insights and methodological challenges from system-wide indicators to detailed assessments of individual food product chains such as fluid milk, to the environmental implications of dietary behavioral choices.  While the number of life cycle studies of food has grown dramatically in the last decade, much of the focus has been on improving the environmental efficiency of individual product chains.  In order to make this relevant to consumer and policy decisions, further methodological developments, including the integration of nutritional health assessments, are needed.  Dr. Heller will present a framework for these developments, along with efforts made to date.


Martin Heller is a research specialist with the Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) at University of Michigan. His most recent research interest involves integrating nutritional information into environmental impact assessments of food and diet. He has conducted life cycle assessment studies of short rotation woody biomass energy crops (upstate NY DOE willow demonstration project), a large-scale vertically integrated US organic dairy (Aurora Organic Dairy), and as part of an international team, a comprehensive, spatially-explicit study of US dairy production for Dairy Research Institute. He also developed a seminal report on Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U. S. Food System. As a researcher at the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU, Marty investigated the ecological services provided by pasture-based and confinement-based dairies, and developed a “community food profile” intended to frame for a general audience the opportunities of a community-based food system. He received a BS in chemical engineering from Michigan State and a PhD, also in chemical engineering, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Marty has spent much of the past 10 years growing organic vegetables, starting and managing market farms/CSAs. Through a local non-profit, he is currently developing a Farmer Residency program to assist new farmers in gaining farm management experience. He grew up on a traditional livestock farm in southeast Michigan.

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