Miguel Gomez with apricot tree

ACSF Faculty Fellow, Miguel Gomez explores sustainable food systems in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Lori Sonken (ACSF policy specialist) interviewed him 

Interview with Miguel Gómez

March 29, 2012

Miguel Gomez with apricot tree

ACSF Faculty Fellow, Miguel Gomez explores sustainable food systems in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Lori Sonken (ACSF policy specialist) interviewed him:

How does your research relate to sustainability?

Miguel GomezMiguel Gomez (AEM)

My research focuses on developing food distribution systems that are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable.  For example, about 90 percent of the broccoli consumed in the U.S. comes from California and Arizona.  If we can develop seeds capable of adapting to growing conditions in the eastern U.S. to serve local consumers we will benefit society by increasing the availability of a nutritious food, providing economic development in depressed areas, diversifying supply and reducing the carbon footprint. This makes a lot of sense.

How have you worked with the Atkinson Center?

 The ACSF jump-started my research program with two grants – one supported the eastern broccoli industry study and the other funded a study looking at the constraints and opportunities to bring healthy foods to underserved people in the Northeastern U.S. I have been able to leverage additional support from outside sources.  Now, about 75 percent of my budget for research and student involvement stems directly from the ACSF.  I am so grateful to the Atkinson Center.

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Miguel Gómez fondly remembers spending summers on his grandfather’s farm in Colombia where the family slept in hammocks hanging over dirt floors and lived without electricity or running water.  Gómez recalls saddling their two donkeys with teak saplings that came from the neighbors’ lands.  Once transplanted to his family’s 5-acre farm in Cordoba, the teak crop was hand-watered for a decade using 5-gallon-jugs filled with run-off collected from the roof.  His grandfather – the happiest person Gómez has ever known – thought that someday he would be rich.  Instead, he learned tough lessons Gómez has never forgotten.

“When we went to harvest the teak, the wood was too hard. Nobody had equipment strong enough to cut the teak. It was very expensive to transport the wood to the capital city 10 hours away. Without market access and never having spent time thinking about distribution, our efforts failed,” Gómez said.

The experience cultivated Gómez’s interest in the social and environmental implications of food systems.  As assistant professor in Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Gómez focuses on markets and supply chains for perishable foods traveling from the farm to the consumer’s table.

His research contributes to a sustainable future by trying to develop socially, environmentally and economically sustainable food distribution systems, he says.

“The food industry, consumers and policy makers all care about the links between the economic, social and environmental decisions they make and sustainability,” Gómez says.

He has leveraged two Academic Venture Fund grants he received from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF) into long-term research projects with funding from outside sources.  In 2009, ACSF awarded him $120,000 for an initial two-year project to study sustainability of food systems. This has resulted in a longer-term project creating a regional food network for broccoli on the east coast. The project aims to increase the consumption of broccoli grown in the eastern United States from the current 4 percent to at least 10 percent by 2016

The interdisciplinary project includes plant breeders and geneticists at work producing the appropriate seeds to have broccoli grow year round on the east coast as it did 50 years ago when most broccoli in the U.S. was produced in the east.  Gómez is working with other economists to create an appropriate distribution system to move the broccoli from the farm to warehouses, supermarkets and ultimately to east coast consumers’ tables.

“By reducing the transportation costs, creating a resilient locally grown crop and developing a regional supply system, we can generate economic activity for east coast farmers and reduce our carbon footprint,” Gómez says. He is hoping to diversify the local broccoli supply by creating a product that does not depend on California’s stressed water supply.

Another long-term project – also jump-started in 2009 with an initial $120,000 grant Gómez received from the ACSF’s Academic Venture Fund – is trying to improve the nutritional status of 11 rural and urban underserved communities in the northeast.  The project aims to provide fruits, vegetables, low fat milk and ground beef, and whole grains to consumers who currently have a diet inadequate to live a healthy life. Now funded with a $5 million grant from the USDA, involving 11 institutions and researchers across multiple disciplines, the project is looking at the supply and demand barriers involved in serving nutritious foods to 8 million people in the northeast.

“We are understanding the current flow of the products and are looking at the economic and policy barriers to making the foods available to these communities,” says Gómez, principal investigator and economist focused on analyzing the supply chain.

Gómez received his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering from the Universidad de los Andes.  He earned his MA and Ph.D. in agricultural and consumer economics from the University of Illinois.  He was a postdoc from 2001-2004 at Cornell, but returned to the University of Illinois to take a faculty position.

“When my current position at Cornell opened it was a no-brainer for me to apply. Cornell enables you to build bridges between disciplines and to work with people from different departments and schools to explore new research ideas.  He has developed strong collaborations with faculty in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, School of Engineering and the Johnson School. He also appreciates the significant support he has received from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

“In my first year as an assistant professor, ACSF jump-started my research program. I am so grateful to the center,” Gómez says.

–by Lori Sonken