Interview with Jessica Fanzo, Professor of Climate and Director of the Food for Humanity Initiative, Columbia Climate School

by Sycamore May

Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Ph.D., is a Professor of Climate and Director of the Food for Humanity Initiative at the Columbia Climate School. Prior to her current role, she held the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorship of Global Food Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University, where she also directed the Global Food Policy and Ethics Program. Dr. Fanzo has a history of engagement with prominent organizations including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the UN World Food Programme, and Bioversity International.

With a focus on the connections among agriculture, health, and the environment, Dr. Fanzo’s research spans more than two decades and has significantly contributed to addressing global challenges, particularly in regions most significantly affected by climate change. Her leadership roles in commissions and initiatives including the Food Systems Economic Commission and the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health have  been instrumental in shaping policies and initiatives aimed at improving food security and sustainability. 

Recognized for her pioneering work in sustainable diets, Dr. Fanzo was the inaugural laureate of the Carasso Foundation’s Sustainable Diets Prize in 2012. She continues to advise numerous organizations and governments worldwide, leveraging her interdisciplinary background in nutrition and immunology to drive evidence-based policy change and foster collaboration. Dr. Fanzo’s academic journey began with a Ph.D. in Nutrition from the University of Arizona, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in immunology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

Food Policy Center: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Fanzo. To start, could you share what inspired your focus on food systems and climate? Your work emphasizes the importance of food policies in support of sustainable diets. How do you see these policies evolving, particularly in the context of climate-impacted regions with limited resources?

Jessica Fanzo: It is quite interesting to see how the field has evolved. When I was working at the Earth Institute and Bioversity International, the concept of “sustainable diets” was quite nascent and the rigorous research to demonstrate their impacts on dietary diversity and nutrition was quite scant. That said, this idea of sustainable diets has been around a good long time. The counterculture movement in the United States during the late ’60s and early ’70s was promoting this type of eating (and lifestyle) in everything they did to counter the industrialism of food that was happening post World War II. History is long and sordid, but now, with climate change and the massive decline and degradation of biodiversity around the world, we are seeing potential risks and threats to food systems and our diets. Climate change and the rampant extreme events we are grappling with are a reckoning. We are realizing we don’t have a choice, and for some living in resource-constrained settings, the choice is even more limited. We have to change the way we grow food, how we distribute it, and how we consume it. We have to consider equity issues across food systems. We have to hold our governments and the range of private sector actors accountable to assist in this transition. We can’t leave it to eaters to fend for themselves when the cards are often stacked against them.

FPC: As the Director of the Food for Humanity Initiative, you lead efforts to address challenges to global food security. Could you elaborate on some of the key initiatives and collaborations you’re spearheading to achieve sustainable food systems and nutrition outcomes? Specifically, can you elaborate on the Food Systems Dashboard and The Food Systems Countdown Initiative?

JF: Food system transformation is urgent, requiring rigorous, science-based monitoring to guide public and private decisions and support those who hold decision-makers to account. Yet, policymakers are often in the dark about how food systems are performing, potential near- and long-term risks, and where to intervene.  We are developing global guidance and better data tools, metrics, and models to unpack some of the most complex scientific issues related to food systems. Two such tools are the Food Systems Dashboard and the Food Systems Countdown Initiative. The Food Systems Dashboard brings together data from multiple sources, making it  possible to compare the drivers, components, and outcomes of food systems across countries and regions, gain insights into challenges, and identify actions to improve nutrition, health, and environmental outcomes. The Food Systems Countdown Initiative emerged from the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit and is a collaborative effort to monitor food system change and performance over the next eight years. It brings together 65 scientists from 32 organizations representing every region of the world — Civil Society, Academia, and the UN. This group has established 50  holistic indicators that allow them to track food system developments  over the next decade. We hope that this monitoring will help bring decision-makers together  around key priorities, incentivize action, hold stakeholders accountable, sustain commitment by demonstrating progress, and enable course-corrections. What we’ve learned in the first two years of the Countdown is that no single region of the world has a monopoly on food systems successes or on food systems challenges. Every region has significant room for improvement, and countries can learn from each other.

FPC: Building on the importance of partnerships, could you elaborate on the role of collaboration among academia, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in driving change in food systems and climate resilience? How can these partnerships be strengthened to maximize impact?

JF: Partnership, collaboration, and consensus are so critical. There are many people engaging in the topic now, and that is fantastic because we need all hands on deck. The question is, how can we align our efforts, messages, and evidence so that it helps push policymakers to take action without confusion? We need better alignment and coordination among ourselves–be it researchers, UN agencies, and NGOs. We also need to be thinking about where influence and change can happen. There is a lot (maybe too much) high-level dialogue that doesn’t seem to be filtering down to where it matters most. We need to keep pressuring the highest authorities and nation-states to take action, but we need more emphasis on the communities themselves. I am not a fan of “top down, bottom up” language because it seems to place communities at the bottom of the barrel, which is far from the truth. Let’s change that narrative so that we put people first and and at the center of food systems change.

FPC: Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future of food systems and climate resilience, and how do you envision leveraging education and advocacy to drive positive outcomes? Can you share some promising insights you’ve observed among the scholars in your courses?

JF: My aspiration is that policymakers pay attention to food in the context of climate mitigation and adaptation and help those who live in their countries to secure healthy diets and achieve food security. It is lofty, but it is my hope. I teach students every day, and they inspire me to be realistic but hopeful. 

FPC: Thank you for sharing your expertise and insights with us. Before we conclude, is there anything else you’d like to convey to our audience regarding the imperative for action in the realm of food systems and climate resilience?

JF: Get involved in any way you can–vote for the politicians who care about these issues, volunteer in a community garden or food bank, gather the evidence that can elicit change. Every day we all interact with the food system, sometimes multiple times a day. We don’t do this with any other system like health or education. Your choices matter.


Grew up in: Seattle and Tucson

City or town you call home:  New York City!

Job title: Professor of Climate and Food

Background and education: I received an undergrad in Agriculture and a Master’s and PhD in nutrition. Ironically, I was trained as a molecular biologist focusing on nutrition. 

One word you would use to describe our food system: Fragile

Food policy hero: Lawrence Haddad

Your breakfast this morning: Grape Nuts, berries and (unsweetened) soy milk

Favorite food: Clams and, when in a dish, spaghetti alla vongole

Favorite food hangout: Hasaki on St Marks

Food policy social media must follow: You can follow my blog, The Food Archive!

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