Meet affiliated faculty Abigail York

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 Abigail York, Professor of Governance and Public Policy, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Co-Director of Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene.

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

A lot of my family members are dairy farmers in Wisconsin and that’s where I grew up, so I was embedded in a farming community throughout my childhood. It became woven into my identity and lifestyle, and I think about it basically every day of my life. Academically, food systems came to the forefront for me when I did my undergraduate honors thesis on vertical integration of the hog market. 

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

One of my biggest projects right now that has a food system element is a western water project that looks at what's happening with changing snowpack. We’re thinking about how it’s affecting farmers that use irrigated agriculture in Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona. Another big project of mine is in the Arctic where I’m looking at sea ice change and adaptation in coastal communities. Fisheries and marine mammal hunting are really important to their food systems and our focus is on indigenous communities, so food sovereignty issues are a big part of this project. I’m also taking into account multi-level governance to see how households and communities are grappling with adaptation to climate change, and how different levels of governance affect that. In this case, it goes all the way up to international agreements, conflicts, and cooperation. 

I also have another project in Appalachia that is looking at fracking. The agricultural intersection here isn’t a focal part of the project, but it is still important. In some communities, fracking has enabled agriculture to persist in places it probably wouldn’t have because it provides money back to those farmers. Agriculture is the back-drop of this project, but the main idea is to see how communities are dealing with unconventional oil and natural gas drilling. I’ve also been very active with the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) program since I came to ASU. This work involves agriculture in the valley and we particularly think about green field development and farmland loss. Lastly, I have a project in Nepal that is mostly about community forestry, and the fodder there is used for dairy animals. Our funding is currently wrapped up, so we’re working on papers around food security and food sovereignty in Indigenous communities in Nepal. They engage in traditional practices within protected areas which is considered “illegal” even though they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. There is a lot of tension between food and livelihood strategies in protected areas. 

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

My perspective comes with a white settler lens tied to our family’s farmland, but my thinking has evolved as I’ve engaged with Indigenous communities. I’ve thought a lot about privilege and power, and it made me rethink my personal background and scholarship. The water rights settlements that are coming around right now are going to change agriculture in the west. As a governance scholar, I think a lot about governance innovations and I believe that we’re going to see transformation driven by Indigenous communities having more power in terms of water and land. We’re already seeing a shift in power with marine mammal hunting in the Arctic. There is potential for a huge transformation by a shift in power where Indigenous communities are thankfully getting more authority. White settler conventional growers know they are going to change what’s been grown and how it’s being grown. I’m excited to see these transformations play out. 

What’s your go-to weeknight meal?

I’m a midwesterner at heart, so my go-to is probably roasted chicken with roasted vegetables. I have that about every other week. I grew up with a lot of classic midwestern farm cooking.