Meet affiliated faculty Rebecca Muenich

In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Rebecca Muenich, Assistant Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment; Senior Global Futures Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory; Program Lead for Agriculture and Biodiversity in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. 

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

When I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t particularly interested in food systems. I was interested in studying the environment and water, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that if you’re interested in those things then you have to be interested in the food system. Agriculture has one of the biggest footprints whether you’re talking about land use, water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. No matter what environmental aspect you’re interested in, you basically have to have interest in the food system. Since I was interested in water and water quality, I inadvertently became interested in food systems issues. 

Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation. 

Most of my current research is in the realm of nitrogen and phosphorus. These are key nutrients needed for anything to grow, including us, but especially plants. The majority of current nitrogen in the food system comes from a very energy-intensive process called the haber-bosch process and most of the phosphorus is mined from rock phosphate. Although nitrogen is technically an unlimited resource, it is very energy-intensive, so one could say it is limited. On the other hand, phosphorus is definitely a limited resource. Not only are these essential nutrients in limited supply, but we also have a lot of excess leaching of these nutrients into our water bodies. This leads to harmful environmental problems such as eutrophication, algae blooms, fish kills, and more. We have an interesting conundrum where we need these nutrients in our system, but they aren’t being sustainably used and contribute to environmental problems. So, my work focuses on understanding these issues in a way that will help us manage them better. I do a lot of modeling, geospatial science, and remote sensing work to try and understand where sources of these nutrients are and how they are moving throughout the environment and what practices and strategies we could employ in our agricultural system to make nutrient-use more sustainable.  

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

It’s hard to pick one because innovation can have many different meanings. In terms of technology, the advancements in indoor hydroponic vertical farming systems are going to be very important for our food system in the future. Being able to farm crops year-round wherever you are, as long as you have a sustainable energy and water source, will transform the food system. 

However, there are other innovations that aren’t technology-based that are also very exciting. As I mentioned before, a lot of our nutrients end up leaching in water bodies. A major part of the solution to this is better management of fertilizers and education to help farmers think about what they’re applying to the land and what’s actually getting used by the crops. For example, talking to farmers about saving money on fertilizer inputs because they have enough in their soil is really important. This is an exciting and important part of the solution to transforming the food system. There is a huge gap in education and data to help us make more informed decisions that could really advance nutrient management.  

Additionally, I am part of a new science and technology center at ASU called STEPS, which stands for Science and Technologies to Enhance Phosphorus Sustainability. This center is very technology-focused, but there is also a lot of stakeholder interactions and decision-making. I’m working with a team that is trying to identify where stores of phosphorus are through novel data and modeling approaches. I’m also working with teams that are developing new technologies to extract that phosphorus depending on where it is and what form it’s in, rather than mining from rocks. There is a lot of exciting work going on at STEPS that will be very important in the near-future.

What’s your go-to weeknight meal?

I honestly don’t really enjoy cooking, so I spend a handful of Saturdays throughout the year making 3-4 months worth of food and then freezing it. This allows me to easily just heat meals up for dinner. I still try to cook at least a couple nights a week, but I’m a mom to a 1 year old so it is challenging to find time. There is a marinated, Wild Alaskan salmon dish from Costco that we eat quite often, but I’m not really married to any dish. I care more about the ease of cooking, rather than the taste.