Meet affiliated faculty Jeffrey Klopatek

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 Jeffrey Klopatek, Ecology and Environmental Science Professor in the School of Life Sciences. 

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

At one time, my mother told a story of how, after over-sleeping, she came into the kitchen, and I was cooking bacon and eggs. I was four years old. However, aside from working in restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, while taking a few semesters off college, I didn't think about “Food Systems” again for a long time until I was a Fulbright scholar in Namibia.  When not in the desert, I stayed with the director of the American Information Agency and found myself cooking for diplomats and ambassadors of varied cultural backgrounds. After returning to the United States, I started working in Phoenix restaurants if I had time off for a semester break. I started by working under a nationally renowned chef at the best restaurant in Phoenix, sometimes for 16 hours a day. This morphed into me working in other restaurants around the country. On my last sabbatical, I studied cucina povera, the food the poor of Italy used to cook. Working in Michelin-starred restaurants in southern Italy, I learned how Italians could transform humble ingredients into unforgettable meals. Later, after retirement, I became an on-call chef at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and an adjunct professor while teaching the ecology of food and sustainable food systems. Thus, I am immersed in food systems.

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

Currently, I am working on a book centered on the ecology of food, delving into the intricate relationships between organisms that make up our food supply and the biotic and abiotic pressures of their environment. I emphasize the essential link between living organisms that make our food supply and the affects of climate change on them and their production effects on climate change. My research covers fundamental aspects, including land (soils) limitations, water resources, and climate processes, as these factors are interconnected to food production. So, that's where I am right now with my book, but it's a long way from being done.

My journey into this research stems from on-the-ground training in food service organizations, where I gained practical insights into food, resources, and sustainability. Fortunately, I have been able to piggyback food interests with my ecological research. This gives me a unique perspective that I could not obtain through only examining food production data. My background as a chef allows me to appreciate the significance of responsibly sourcing food, using ingredients efficiently, promoting sustainable meal preparation methods, and minimizing food waste.

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

An innovation in the food systems realm that excites me revolves around cereal grains. The world has become dependent upon cereal grains (such as wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, rye, and millet) for the majority of its food supply (56%of the food energy and 50% of the protein). There is a lot of research going on right now in the development of perennial cereal crops. The Bread Lab at Washington State University is cultivating a perennial wheat variety that is important for ecosystem health because you don’t have to dig up the soil every year and disturb the environment, which leads to nutrient leaching and carbon emissions. 

There is also a move in cereal grain production towards planting maslin, a technique that involves planting an assortment of grains together. Many countries, particularly in the Middle East, have been practicing maslin grain cultivation for years. This strategy provides resilience against unpredictable climates, ensuring some harvest even in variable conditions. 

China's development of a perennial rice variety (Yunnan) also holds promise for food system sustainability, potentially impacting the 3.5 billion people worldwide reliant on rice. This variety has been planted by smallholder farmers in southern China and is now expanding throughout SE Asia and Africa. The perennial variety may alleviate many of the disturbances associated with annual production.

Additionally, genetic tools are playing a crucial role in advancements in drought and disease-resistant crops. This is exemplified by Australia's efforts to develop a salt-tolerant or arid-tolerant wheat variety. Recent research by an international team of scientists established a new variety of rice to develop a new strain of hyperefficient, drought-resistant rice that employs C-4 photosynthesis as compared to its C-3 method. China is undertaking new rice planting strategies, including “dry farming,” that reduce methane production in paddies. Water in paddy fields acts as a barrier between the air and soil, creating the ideal oxygen-poor environment for methanogens. New rice varieties that produce larger, starchier rice grains mean there is less carbon transported to and excreted by the rice’s root systems that fuel the methanogenesis. As the global population continues to grow, these innovations in genetic modification are pivotal for ensuring a sustainable future in food production.

4) What's your favorite weeknight meal?

My meals are seasonally oriented, ensuring freshness and flavor. For instance, after returning to Tempe from Santa Rosa during Thanksgiving, we had an abundance of homegrown eggplants thriving in our garden. Eggplants flourish here from September to October, benefiting from the heat and a slight cooldown. With this surplus, we enjoyed a lot of eggplants with pasta and San Marzano tomato sauce crafted from the tomatoes I grow in Santa Rosa. I produce our tomato sauce as well as other products annually, thanks to about 60 tomato plants of nine varieties. For meals, fajitas with our harvest of bell and Italian peppers and onions and any available protein source is a quick serve. Quiche is another go-to weeknight option; many people think quiche is difficult to make, but it's not. Stir-fry and frittatas are also easy, one-pot choices because you can throw in whatever vegetables you have available.