A Systems Approach to Address The Practice of Continuous Cropping in International Fresh Produce Trade

Border towns like Nogales, Arizona are fascinating places full of people and goods passing from one side to the other, usually funneled through ports-of-entry (POE) where their flow is regulated by various government agencies. With inputs, outputs and regulation of flow, POEs offer a large-scale, physical example for describing Systems Thinking. Sankey Diagrams depict energy flows and work especially well within the context of POEs and Systems Thinking (see Figure 1).

Nogales Imports - 2017

Figure 1. Fresh Produce imports through the Nogales, AZ port-of-entry, 2017, organized by item type (i.e. grape tomatoes), general term (i.e. tomatoes), plant family (i.e. Solanaceae) and general terms used to describe rotational crops (i.e. fruits, roots, beans, leafy).

A watershed includes the tributaries that contribute to a river and in a similar way a foodshed includes the tributaries of a food system. The Sankey diagram above depicts fresh produce imports through Nogales, Arizona, one of the largest inland POEs for food in the world, in truckload equivalents­ of 40,000 lbs. The commodity types are organized by their plant families as well as more general terms used in describing rotational crops, before feeding into all fresh produce imports through the Nogales, AZ POE from 2017.

The practice of continuous cropping, planting the same crop from year after year, leads to a host of problematic issues including depletion of soil nutrients, declining yields over time, soil compaction, etc. Farmers that have made infrastructure investments such as drip irrigation or protected structure (greenhouse, shade house, etc.) or investments into their operation’s capabilities, for example, Food Safety or Organic certifications to enable market access, are incentivized to use their improved land or operations each year. Markets develop around their product but at the same time the practice of continuous cropping becomes reinforced from one season to the next.

Rotational crops are one effective way to address the practice of continuous cropping and may be described in general terms of “fruits,” “roots,” “beans” and “leafy.” In more technical terms, different plant families (i.e. Solanaceae, Apiaceae, Fabaceae, Brasicaceae) are generally suitable as rotational crops, though, resource availability, soil type, climate, pathogen pressure, markets, post-harvest requirements, etc. also need to be carefully considered.

While also enhancing biodiversity, planting different plant families from one season to the next helps to break the cycle of pathogen build-up and other problems related to continuous cropping. The annual rotation of crops also helps reduce costly external inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, etc., all of which contribute to greenhouse gases including nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Rotational crops can be non-commercial, such as Sunn Hemp, a legume that works well for building organic Nitrogen in the soil and Soil Organic Matter (SOM) to support microbial activity. Certain rotational crops can also be harvested for commercial use while achieving similar benefits for the soil as the non-commercial rotational crop options. Farms with limited land or improved infrastructure may be more interested commercial rotational crops as they may not be able to afford to leave fallow their improved infrastructure.

Farmers and their marketer counter-parts in a globalized world can use Sankey Diagrams of their international foodsheds to better understand their food systems and to make informed decisions for potential commercial rotational crop options that ultimately benefit the farmer, the environment and the bottom-line.

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The EcoChallenge: Exploring Competition as a Driver for Sustainability

What is the role of competition as a driver for sustainability? Let us first consider competition on its own. Competition is an activity where participants compete. Simple enough. The word compete originates from Latin com– ‘together’ and petere ‘aim at’, so competition is about an activity where participants come together with an aim. One may compete against oneself or compete against others. In either case there’s an action of coming together with an aim.

Drawdown, the #1 Best-selling environmental book of 2017, identifies and describes the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. Enabled by the Northwest Earth Institute and Project Drawdown, let us take aim and collective action toward these solutions through friendly competition—the Drawdown EcoChallenge (April 4-25, 2018).

Having lead my company to be recognized as Arizona’s Greenest workplace (2014) and The Best Renewable Energy Collaboration in Mexico (2015), I have some experience in competitions for sustainability. One thing I really like about competitions for sustainability is the ability to engage participants and elicit passion from them about a cause they may not know much about. In this way I find competition to be an effective form of education. The learning experience is not instantaneous, however. One thing I admire about the Drawdown EcoChallenge is that it takes place over a period of two weeks, overlapping with Earth Day I might add. This is very different than most sports competitions which typically last only a few hours. Considering the duration of the event, the EcoChallenge really seeks to develop sustainable habits among the participants. Through the development of habits, which come with time, the actions or challenges the participants select for themselves may last longer than the competition itself.

The EcoChallenge challenges are conveniently organized into seven sectors—Electricity Generation, Food, Women and Girls, Buildings and Cities, Land Use, Transport and Materials. As of this post, there are 954 participants taking on challenges within the Food sector. Materials, a distant second, has 637 participants. Fortunately, my work is largely focused within the Food sector, so I may be able to support my teammates in this challenge with insight and resources from within my sector. In addition, my work within the fresh produce industry within the Food sector gives me insight on Refrigerant Management, the number one ranked solution to addressing climate change, as identified by Drawdown.

Another aspect I like about the EcoChallenge is that the actions are very attainable. While considering whether to compete, I posted details about the competition on an online general forum to gauge interest among some of my peers. The first response I received pointed out how “many [of the actions] are super simple and things I would love to include as new habits in day-to-day life.” This feedback of enthusiasm and support was enough motivation for me to immediately sign up and create a team.

Figuring out the scope of the team was the next step. I didn’t want to create a team that was so large in scope that the participants would lose their sense of team spirit. For instance, a team Earth or team Humanity would be too large, unless of course we were competing against another inhabited planet faced with environmental peril or some alien (or robot) species. I also considered team formation by country or city, but this isn’t the Olympics and I’m not in local government. Competing at the company-level and challenging a competitor within the fresh produce sector would have been fun, but I’ve already done that a few times through other sustainability competitions. College and department-level teams were also considered but potential membership numbers could be lower, especially since my college and department are both relatively new to the University. For this competition I ultimately elected to create a team at the University level, The University of Cambridge. I selected this in-part because there are at least two other Universities currently competing in the EcoChallenge. In challenging another University, I figured we could tap into existing sentiments of rivalry to drive team membership and engagement. In addition, I will also be on the University campus during the event, as opposed to the office, so there’s greater potential to recruit, motivate, support and ultimately win. The competition is free, team membership is open to everyone and we can only win. Join us. Game on.