Plant Chat: Chris Vogliano, MS, RDN
I’m so glad to have my friend and fellow dietitian, Chris Vogliano, on my Plant Chat today. Chris is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a passion for creating a healthy, sustainable, and waste-free food system. He has served as a research fellow for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, was awarded the “Young Dietitian of the Year” award by the state of Washington and was recognized as “Today’s Dietitian Magazine’s” 10 RD’s who are making a difference. Chris has also recently taught a food systems course at The University of Washington and has presented at over 35 conferences around America. Most recently Chris is pursuing his PhD in Global Health in Wellington, New Zealand, focused on creating more biodiverse sustainable food systems. During his free time Chris loves doing anything outdoors – hiking, biking, yoga, and dining his way through new cuisines. I sat down with Chris to learn more about his thoughts on modern agriculture’s impacts on the planet in this interview.
What are the primary ways in which agriculture has changed in the U.S. over the past 50 years?
Our agriculture system has increasingly become more centralized and is falling into the hands of larger corporations. While this comes with some benefits, it also comes with many challenges. It is often quoted that 94% of farms are still family farms. While this statistic may be true, I personally feel it’s misleading consumers into a false illusion about our food system. The majority of our food comes from agricultural operations that prioritize profit over personal or planetary health.
How do these changes impact the environment, animal welfare, and the community?
Consolidation of agriculture lends itself to a system that is focused on increasing profits at the sake of consumer, environmental, and animal wellbeing. As an example, large animal feeding operations are the leading cause of water pollution in America, and often subject animals to unethical living conditions. While it’s technically the most efficient and profitable way to produce livestock, it’s hardly the most environmentally-considerate or ethical method of production. To top it off, those most often living near these massive animal feeding operations are low-income community members that suffer from associated airborne pollution and disease.
What is the single aspect of modern agriculture that most concerns you?
The lack of transparency. While I am hopeful this is improving and consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, there is still a false sense of illusion that our dairy comes from happy cows in a green pasture and our produce is grown in a way that benefits the soil and earth.
How does the cultivation of monocrops impact the sustainability of the food system?
Feeding our growing global population is a massive challenge, and it’s impressive how well we are able to provide cheap food for Americans and others around the world. However, producing this much food – particularly low nutrient food – does not come without environmental damage and harms to human health. When we monocrop a single species of food, we open the doors of susceptibility to disease and pests. Nature is resilient and will find opportunities to fight back if warranted. This is why I believe agroecology, or farming with nature rather than against, is an important model to consider when looking towards the future of food.
Is agricultural efficiency sometimes confused for sustainability? If so, why?
I wouldn’t say it is confused as much as it is prioritized over other aspects of sustainable agriculture. Farm productivity and economic returns are important pieces of sustainability, but are also only a sliver of the definition. We must consider all aspects of sustainable agriculture that balance social, ecological, and economic considerations.
When it comes to animal agriculture, what are the most pressing concerns facing our current system?
To me, it’s the environmental impact of our animal agriculture system. Ruminant animals like lamb and beef are incredibly resource intensive and have massive carbon footprints. We must find ways to reduce these footprints while simultaneously encouraging consumers to shift their dietary patterns towards a more sustainable diet –one that is not as meat-dominant.
What will it take to move the needle from our current agricultural system to a more sustainable model, which takes care of the soil, natural resources, animals, communities, and people?
Consumers are key here. Driving change from our purchasing habits will have the quickest and most dramatic impacts on the way our agriculture system operates. It all comes down to the almighty dollar.
The sustainability movement has often focused on small, organic, local agriculture within a community, but what are the limitations for this sort of agricultural system within the overall food system? What are the successes of these sorts of agricultural systems?
These systems may not be practical for all food production or all populations. Many around the world would not be able to survive on only locally produced food, as their diets would be nutritionally inadequate. However, there is room for both global and local food systems that have reduced inputs and increased ecological considerations.
What are some simple messages dietitians can communicate to their clients and the public about how they can support a more sustainable agricultural system in their daily lives?
My top three tips are reducing food waste, swapping beef for beans (less meat), and promoting dietary diversity through increased consumption of diverse plant foods. If we all worked towards these three goals, our diets would be significantly more sustainable and our healthy would dramatically improve.