Meet affiliated faculty Jim Elser

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 James (Jim) Elser, Director of the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance.

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

I’m a limnologist and I mostly study lakes , in which the elements phosphorus and nitrogen have big effects on water quality, stimulating algal blooms and such. I spent a lot of time working on those phenomena in lake ecosystems, and over time I became more interested in where the phosphorus and nitrogen were coming from. I learned that a lot of it comes from within the food system from human waste and sewage pollution which has been solved to a certain degree in developed countries with waste water treatment plants. But more recently a lot of it is coming from agricultural nonpoint source pollution from farms, feedlots, and dairy operations. I became very interested in this phenomenon from a large-scale perspective around 2008 when there was news that there was a 700% increase in the price of phosphate rock which is used to make fertilizer. This made me think more broadly about phosphorus and where it comes from, and how it all fits together. At that point, a bunch of us at ASU created the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative, and we’re still working on the ramifications of that 10-12 years later. 

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

I am currently the Director of the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance which is a members organization of private companies, entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers, government employees, and NGO people who are all interested in advancing and implementing innovations to more sustainably use phosphorus in the food system. As a part of that, the P Alliance is engaged in the knowledge transfer activities of the newly funded National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center (STC) on phosphorus sustainability called Science and Technologies for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS). ASU is a big part of this $25 million dollar project. 

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

I’m excited about cellular agriculture which is essentially using stem cells to grow meat and seafood. I think this has a very strong transformative potential.  

What’s your go-to weeknight meal?

Definitely pizza. Isn’t that everyone’s answer? I just had leftover pizza for lunch today.