Meet Swette Center staff member, Mauricio Bellon

In this series, we’re meeting with Swette Center team members to explore their background in food systems, what they are currently working on, and their vision of food systems transformation. 

Read on for an interview with Mauricio Bellon, Research Professor. 

When did you first get interested in food systems work?

I'm a little bit older so before we talked about food systems we talked more about agricultural systems. Since my undergrad, when I studied agronomy, and later for my Ph.D. when I did my dissertation with smallholder farmers in Southern Mexico, I have been interested in agriculture. Since then, our society has evolved in that we realize that agriculture is ultimately about food, not just about the soil or the plant. This is, however, a more recent perspective. Now we recognize the importance of food and that it's not just agricultural production. Therefore, we need to take into account the whole chain that goes from agricultural production, to not just the consumer, but also to what happens after with waste and recycling. 

I studied in Mexico at a university called Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. I graduated a long time ago. One of the very important parts of that training was that we were encouraged to talk to farmers and consumers, and integrate their points of view. We had a very humble attitude and tried to learn from others. There were a lot of projects with teamwork and a lot of research. It was very innovative at the time. In those situations, you realize that you don’t know much. I had to ask questions and not be afraid to ask them. Not being afraid to make mistakes I think was a great training. Then after my undergrad in Mexico, I did my Ph.D. at the University of California Davis. That training in Mexico was perfect so it was not very difficult for me to transition to the American system of education. Overall, my training was in an open-minded approach. 

What are you working on currently? 

I'm currently working on a project called true cost accounting. That has come up in the last 10-15 years. There are many costs and benefits that go beyond financial monetary considerations associated with food systems, from the production to the consumption to the management of waste. In many cases, these costs and benefits are ignored in the decisions we make about the food we produce and consume. This in turn leads to undesirable effects that are called negative externalities. Therefore, to make better decisions that lead to desirable effects and better food systems, we need to make those broader costs and benefits visible to the consumer, producers, policymakers, governments, and the private sector. That way these costs and benefits are better taken into account. Specifically, I am working on a project where we are applying the framework of true cost accounting to ranching and cattle production in Arizona and Colorado.

What do you think is a priority in transforming food systems?

A better understanding of those costs and benefits in food systems and on how to incorporate them into their governance. Particularly, as they relate to nature and the broad social systems in which they operate. I believe that this is crucial and that's why I am happy to be working on the true cost accounting approach. This approach is trying to make food systems that are more transparent. More transparency leads to better decisions and improved results. 

Any advice for current food systems students?

I would say to look into the broad context. To recognize and reflect on what you are looking at. One thing I am interested in is narratives. What is the narrative behind how we conceptualize the food system? What are crucial elements? Then to think critically about that narrative. The traditional narrative is based on “specialization, economies of scale and producing more efficiently.” The bigger question is whether this narrative frame which we use to make decisions about food systems should continue to be used. We saw during the pandemic that many efficiencies created problems because it makes food systems more fragile. I would tell students to really think about these narratives and these frames. How we frame the issues, how we frame the problems, and how we frame the solutions are very important. Additionally, there are some crucial concepts that we need to understand. If you can understand those crucial concepts you are equipped to deal with this narrative. Always look at what the stories are behind the issues you are dealing with. What are the underlying stories to them? This is what I mean by narratives is looking at what the stories are that create these frames. 

What is your favorite food to make? 

I'm not a very good cook, but my wife is a fantastic cook. However, I do know how to make something very simple which is a Mexican dish called pastel azteca. It is made with corn tortillas, salsa, cheese, and sometimes chicken. I layer the tortillas with the salsa, cheese and anything else I want. Then I put it in the oven. It is very easy to make and tasty. It is the same idea as lasagna, but with different ingredients obviously. That's one of the few things I can actually cook. I like that I can make it vegetarian or not.