Between the complex research topic called “sustainable food production” and the dozen eggs on the grocery store shelf stands Nathan Pelletier, holder of the Endowed Chair in Bio-economy Sustainability Management/Egg Industry Chair in Sustainability at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan, Canada. Pelletier’s goal is to advance research and tools to enable effective sustainability management in the Canadian egg industry for many years to come.
Pelletier structured his educational experience so as to build the foundation for his career trajectory. He started his path with a B.S. in biology from the University of Victoria. During this time a biology co-op job with the provincial government of British Columbia set the stage for his post-graduate studies. “My project was to bring together stakeholders to have dialog around, and begin to move forward with, organic aquaculture certification standards for the province,” recalls Pelletier. It was a highly controversial process. “You could have put a stack of peer-reviewed articles in the middle of that table and each stakeholder group would tell you that they said different things.” Pelletier found himself thinking, “There are so many pieces missing in what we are discussing.” He says that this started his thought process around what could happen in these types of discussions if there was a more structured basis for evaluating sustainability issues and trade-offs in the context of industrial food production. From that moment forward, the course of his career was set.
Pelletier next completed a Masters of Environmental Studies degree at Dalhousie University, where he learned “life-cycle thinking and to using tools like life cycle assessment to take that structured approach to understanding sustainability impacts and tradeoffs from a systems perspective.” He then completed an interdisciplinary research Ph.D. in ecological economics and industrial ecology, again focused on sustainable food systems, prior to moving on to conduct a post-doc project with Environment Canada. From there, he went to work in the Sustainability Assessment Unit of the European Commission Joint Research Centre, developing and applying sustainability assessment methods for policy support.
Throughout his graduate studies, Pelletier developed collaborative research partnerships with a variety of food industry companies and associations. This included his first engagement with the egg industry in collaboration with Dr. Hongwei Xin and Maro Ibarburu at the Egg Industry Center, which resulted in an initial study of the carbon footprint of the egg supply chain in the Midwest. This project led to a larger-scale 50-year study looking at changes in the environmental footprint of the egg production in the United States over time. This report was widely circulated, and sparked the interest of Egg Farmers of Canada. “They contacted me and asked if I would be willing to undertake similar and additional research of the Canadian egg industry,” Pelletier remarked. That work, and his subsequent research collaborations with industry stakeholders, culminated in his current position as the Egg Farmers of Canada Egg Industry Chair in Sustainability.
When asked about the adjustment associated with becoming a research chair, Pelletier indicated that becoming a research manager, while exciting, has proven the most challenging. “Early on in my graduate studies, I began making lists of questions that I thought were really interesting,” said Pelletier. “I realized that the only way I could meaningfully begin to tackle all those questions was to be at the helm of a research program where I could work with a whole variety of graduate students working on various aspects of sustainable food system questions.”
Pelletier’s current position allows him to do just that, and he was eager to discuss how the resulting projects support his vision. Each project ties into Pelletier’s vision of providing the means for effective sustainability management of agri-food supply chains. In the near term, work in his lab will focus on: developing a Canadian Agri-food Life Cycle Data Centre; identification and dissemination of sustainability best management practices and green technologies for egg supply chain partners; and the development of a user-friendly sustainability assessment platform that will enable producers to benchmark their farm’s sustainability status, set goals, and monitor/report their progress. Pelletier stated, “I currently have nine funded projects that are open to prospective students and, as a researcher, that is an exciting place to be.” Pelletier’s powerful advice for young researchers entering the field is this: “Prepare to be surprised. Prepare to have your own preconceptions challenged. Embrace every time your preconceptions are challenged as an opportunity to learn and grow as a researcher.”
While it is exciting to see this intensive research effort focused on the egg industry, it may be sometimes hard to translate its applicability to day-to-day farming activities, so Pelletier drilled down to explain the impact of his upcoming work. Pelletier’s work to-date in the egg industry has provided him with highly detailed information about egg production and related supply chain activities. He has found a wide variation in the efficiencies reported by egg producers and other stakeholders which ultimately influence sustainability outcomes. “If we could shift industry average efficiencies for the three most important [sustainability] criteria in line with the current top performing producers, this could potentially leverage an additional 30-50% reduction in the environmental footprint of Canadian egg products.” These benchmarks will also play an important role as the industry looks at the potential sustainability trade-offs of cage-free and free-range systems. Pelletier’s remark not only hits home for Canadian producers, but also carries strong implications for an egg industry that is focusing more and more on sustainability world-wide.
Pelletier was keen to add that all of us - researchers, industry stakeholders and others - are striving to understand and to move towards sustainability. “No one can argue against the basic common sense of pursuing sustainability” Pelletier stated. “Collectively as a society and within our institutions, we are fumbling toward a future where we can collectively manage ourselves much more effectively for a broad, rich understanding of what sustainability is. I think that ultimately we will get there, but it is certainly a work in progress.”
Pioneers in any field have their challenges, but Pelletier hopes to create practices and tools that can benefit the egg industry and serve as an example for other industries to follow. EIC wishes Nathan the best as he forges onward, and we look forward to telling the story of his research projects as they unfold.
By Myla Meyer