Food is ‘the great convenor,’ says new head of Sustainable Food Project

“Cities can’t exist without farms,” says Mark Bomford, the newly appointed director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

A Canadian transplant, Bomford comes to Yale from the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he honed his vision of making a university the standard-bearer for raising the food consciousness of a growing population of city dwellers — an experience that should serve him well as he leads Yale’s comprehensive food program into its second decade.

At UBC, Bomford founded and managed the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, a far-reaching and multi-faceted organization that includes a 60-acre “learning and research” farm — the last working farm in the city of Vancouver — and 150 academic and community programs linking people to their source of food and, through food, to each other.

The son of an extension agent in the Canadian equivalent of the Agricultural Extension System, Bomford grew up in a farming community in the Western Great Plains of Canada, which as late as the 1980s was still being settled by homesteaders.

He earned a B.Sc. at UBC in agroecology, a degree that combines the sciences of agriculture and ecology within a socioeconomic context. “It was ahead of its time,” says Bomford of the now re-branded program that informed his own holistic approach to food.

Bomford’s view of food as a “great convener” of people and ideas inspired him to transform the abandoned research fields at UBC into a working farm, a living laboratory, and community center, where annually more than 3,500 students and faculty members from every academic discipline, as well as local residents representing a cosmopolitan variety of cultures and ethnicities, meet to grow crops and learn.

The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, which Bomford founded in 2005, serves as an extension of the university, combining the missions of research, teaching, and engaging the local community in a setting that, he maintains, has many advantages over the traditional bricks-and-mortar model of an academic institution. The universality of food bridges the gaps between town and gown, and academic disciplines in ways the classroom can’t, he contends.

Even soil can prove to be a great medium for scientific discovery that is not necessarily related directly to agriculture, he says. “We were able to take the research we did on the farm and link it to very important global issues, such as climate change. Understanding what’s happening at the biophysical level with the exchange of greenhouse gases in agricultural soils is an essential piece of the climate change puzzle.”

Bomford asserts that the farm also opened the gates of the university to a community that would not otherwise have felt welcome — pointing as an example to the indigenous food, health, and sovereignty projects that not only attracted local First Nations groups to the farm but soon became a magnet for indigenous peoples from across North America and as far south as Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, who came to practice and share their ancient agricultural traditions. “If it wasn’t for that farm, I don’t know where the venue would be to get all those people together,” he says.

Bomford sees land-based programs such as the one he created in Vancouver as providing a catalyst for change, in effect empowering people at the ground level to take control of their own food supply.

He is particularly interested in the phenomenon of urban agriculture, which he defines broadly to include “farms under the influence of urban growth, urban politics, and urban land values” — i.e., an interdependent network of farms and cities.

The irony of urban-influenced agriculture is that cities all over the world grew up where farmland was richest, and as those cities grew, they began to encroach on the very land that fed them, he says. “If you want to feed people in a dense city where there are more than 100 people living on every hectare [2.2 acres], you can’t escape the fact that on average it takes a half hectare of farmland to feed each person. … It’s pretty simple math. Cities can’t exist without farms.”

While Bomford dismisses the notion that the recent explosion of farming within cities, i.e., growing vegetables on rooftops or turning empty lots into community gardens, will make a significant direct contribution to the food supply, he says, nonetheless, that growing food in a cement landscape is a necessary compliment to rural agriculture and among the most hopeful and exciting developments in the food system today.

Tilling urban soil, he contends, is transformative for urbanites. “We’re looking at ways to change the world view of someone who has no personal connection with agriculture,” he says, adding that is precisely what this trend is helping to achieve. “An urban farm can be seen by thousands or tens of thousands of people, while a rural farm, which might actually be feeding thousands of people, may remain unseen, unknown out of sight, and out of mind.”

Bomford says that one of the reasons he’s happy to be at Yale is actually the density of population in the Northeast. “I’m going from an environment with an urban agglomeration of two million people to the 50 million population that extends from Boston to D.C.,” he notes.

He also believes the city farming effort in the Northeast is especially well developed and can serve as a model to the rest of the world as urban populations explode and people become increasingly divorced from the land that feeds them.

During his first weeks on campus, Bomford spoke with René Redzepi, co-owner and chef of Noma, three time winner of the “Best Restaurant in the World” title, who was speaking on campus as a guest of the Sustainable Food Project. Watch the video of their conversation below.