Meet senior fellow Ricardo Salvador

Ricardo Salvador

In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center senior fellows to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. 

Read on for an interview with Ricardo Salvador, Director and Senior Scientist of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

1) How did you get interested in food systems issues?

I come from a family that had farming on both sides, but my mom and dad were the first generations in their family to not be farmers. I would visit my relatives on their farms and I couldn’t help but notice some interesting contrasts that led to lessons about what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t interpreted at the time that this meant I would be working in agriculture and food systems.  

I grew up in southern Mexico because my mom, who’s from California, had gone to Mexico as a missionary. She met my dad there and raised a family with him. My dad is from a Native American family and they practice traditional self-provisioning agriculture. When I was growing up, my dad’s family was going through some major dislocations while being forced on a migrant trail and a lot of them were leaving farming. On the other hand, my mom’s side of the family were very successful dairy farmers. I knew the internal conversations for both families and I could tell that there were very few differences in their knowledge of agriculture, as well as how entrepreneurial, hard-working, and smart they were. But they had two totally different conditions.  My mom’s farming family was very materially rich, and my dad’s family had been forced onto the migrant trail. The injustice of it all really struck me. I wondered, why should two different farming families who had the same values and competence have totally different circumstances and destinies available to them?

Originally, I thought that I wanted to work on social justice issues (and I have ended up working on that), but I had a very misconstrued analysis of what needed to be done to help struggling agricultural communities. I grew up in the hey-day of the Green Revolution when there was a very technical approach to agriculture. When I was young, I mistakenly thought the root cause of my family’s poverty in Mexico was their lack of access to high technology. I thought I needed to just get them new tractors and other modern technology. It took me a long while to realize why that analysis was wrong. By the time I figured it out, I had already studied agronomy and I was even a professor in agronomy at Iowa State University. I sort of backed into working in this field; I didn’t directly aim to work in agriculture or food systems. I just wanted to do something to alleviate the poverty and injustice I saw that affected my farming family members.

2) What has changed in food systems over your career?

The issue of social justice brought me to this field, but it was considered to be completely separate from agricultural studies when I began my career. The narrative at the time was that agriculture was all about progress and that it was strictly a noble pursuit. There was no question about the direction of agriculture given that it was producing bountiful amounts of food for a hungry world. Now, it is common to raise questions around social justice in the food system. It still isn’t an easy conversation, and there are a lot of people that reject it, but there is undoubtedly more acknowledgement of social justice issues in the food system. 

Keeling Curve from

Another huge change that has happened is the conversation around the negative consequences of industrial agriculture. I am a child of the ’50’s which is when industrial agriculture was first developed. This was also the start of the entire climate crisis that we’re dealing with. The famous Keeling Curve begins just a year or two after the year I was born. The curve is completely coincident with the duration of my life-span. Also, the metabolic disease crisis resulting from what we produce industrially is a phenomenon that developed in the ’60’s. I got into this field when we thought that all of those things were good things. We thought the fossil fuel era allowed us to be more efficient, mechanize everything, and remove drudgery from agricultural labor. There was a cult of high efficiency and productivity. Now, we’re tying together all of these things with the negative consequences and realizing that we need to rethink how our entire system operates: what we’re producing, how we’re producing it, who produces it, where we produce it, and what we produce it for. I’m hoping that young people who study agriculture will learn all of this, whereas I was just bombarded with the cult of productivity and efficiency when I studied agronomy.   

3) What’s an innovation or development in the food systems world that you’re excited about? 

Something that I’m thinking about a lot right now is the strategy of using food procurement to transform the food system. I’m a board member for the Center for Good Food Purchasing which has been developing this idea. The notion is that there are two ways that we access food: either through grocery stores or eating at an institution like a cafeteria or restaurant. The amount of food purchasing that is required in order to stock both of those channels goes into the billions of dollars, and this is money that is already budgeted. For instance, the Department of Defense has a certain amount that it’s allotted to purchase food for its personnel. Every institution has a budget set aside for purchasing food. If we could transform the lens through which those purchases are made (right now, it’s how to get the cheapest supply of food) into thinking about the kind of food system they’re supporting when they spend that food dollar, then we could transform the entire system. We could leverage every dollar and multiply its beneficial effects rather than just transferring it to the person selling the food.  

The Center for Food Good Purchasing has identified a metric based framework that encourages large institutions to purchase their food with these five core values in mind: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare and nutrition. This system of evaluation is like a LEED certification for the food system. Each institution that spends money on food can use their certification as leverage to interest sellers. If we could scale this up to the Department of Defense who is the largest food purchaser in the US, then we could really transform the food system.

Another thing I’m energized about is supporting the argument that the government has no business supporting large scale agricultural systems because it’s not in the public interest even though it’s using our tax dollars. We expend a great deal of money supporting the industrial food system in the US. It’s basically a policy intervention in the economic sector. I believe we should only support the production of healthy food. If we make that policy shift, then the incentives within the agricultural system would be transformed dramatically. 

The main thing I’m concerned about in our food system is social justice. The food system should serve everyone, not just a small sector of people.    

4) If there was something a new graduate of a food systems program should know, what would it be?

When we talk about food systems, we should take that term literally. It is a set of parts that are coordinated to work together to produce a specific outcome. It is too common to talk about food systems but not actually work within the system. People often focus on just one part of the system that they want to optimize without considering the repercussions throughout the system. I recommend students take the “systems” part of food systems very literally.      

5) What is the best meal you’ve ever had? 

When I was a teenager, I went hiking in southern Mexico with an uncle of mine (we were actually more like brothers). We didn’t take enough food and water with us, so we were struggling when we came back into town. Our relative that had a house on the edge of town took us in and cooked a meal for us. It was absolutely the most delicious meal I’ve ever had. It was fish that he caught himself, served with rice, salad, and homemade lemonade. It was all local food prepared with loving hands, and it was really needed after that hike.