Graham Sustainability Institute

The Impacts of Agriculture on Freshwater Ecosystems: Will Strengthening Local Food Systems Help or Hurt?

Photo by Dave Brenner, U-M SNRE


Ethan Schoolman, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Tom Princen, School of Natural Resources & Environment
Margaret Kalcic, University of Michigan Water Center
Don Scavia, Graham Sustainability Institute

Project Summary

Are strong local food systems better for the environment and freshwater resources than “conventional” food systems characterized by long‐distance supply chains and very large farms? Despite growing support—among policymakers, farmers, civic groups and consumers—for locally‐sourced food, surprisingly little is known about the relationship of local food systems to environmental sustainability.

Motivated by this gap in knowledge, investigators for this project will conduct four linked studies that together address the question: Do increased opportunities to participate in local food systems lead farmers to adopt more environmentally sustainable production methods? These studies are:

  1. A large‐scale survey of farmers in the Great Lakes region of North America
  2. Follow‐up in‐depth interviews with a subsample of survey respondents in the Western Lake Erie basin
  3. Assessment of the environmental impacts of local food networks in the Western Lake Erie basin using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT)
  4. Analysis of existing data on agricultural practices from the USDA Census of Agriculture

This project breaks new ground in exploring the relationship of the social movement for local food to environmental outcomes. In addition, by drawing on the expertise of a multidisciplinary research team and involving students and faculty from a range of departments and schools, this project contains multiple elements that will increase capacity for innovative freshwater research at the University of Michigan.