Meet Suzanne Lipton, Assistant Director at EICES

Suzanne Lipton is the Assistant Director at EICES. In this role, Suzanne oversees projects and programs at EICES, including the SEE-U program and the Executive Education Program. She holds an MPA in Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (2014). Before coming to EICES Suzanne worked at various non-profits focused on environmental sustainability as well as sustainable agrifood systems. Her interests are in environmental sustainability in food sourcing, as well as the underlying economic drivers and policy barriers to creating more sustainable systems. Read more about Suzanne here.


What was your catalyst for researching sustainable food systems?

I have a background in working in farm to table restaurants in NYC, where there is a strong focus on sustainable food and equity in the food system, but a general lack of discussion of the specifics of how food is grown and produced and the environmental impacts of food production. That disconnect led me to work at nonprofits focused on the environmental impact of food production, and specifically meat production. By working in both restaurants and nonprofits, I have gained a broad view of how eaters’ consumption habits match policy recommendations.


Tell us about your work at Columbia University and EICES.

I currently manage two educational programs for undergraduates at EICES. One is an introduction to ecology and environment through various ecosystems, with courses in Brazil, Jordan, and New York. In the New York course, we take students to farms in and around New York City (with a focus on farms upstate and New Jersey) to look at ecological processes on agroecosystems, and to expose the students to experiential learning. At EICES, our team is writing a primer focused on the environmental sustainability of food and farming. The primer will provide an accessible review of environmental sustainability of food production and farming, and will be used for short courses or introductory undergraduate courses.


How are sustainable food systems connected to peace and conflict work? What are the barriers to implementing sustainable food systems?

Food security can be heavily impacted by conflict, as conflict can cause destruction of infrastructure and limit food accessibility because of political and social unrest. In the UN FAO’s most recent State of the Food Security and Nutrition Report (2017), they found that more than half of the 815 million people who are considered undernourished in the world are in countries that are affected by conflict.

In sustainable development, it’s important to look at issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, and not from a siloed viewpoint, to make a holistic change. A change that makes sense for the environment may not necessarily make sense for humanity. Food systems are a way to mesh different frameworks because they require you to think about social, economic, consumption, and political feasibility as well.


Share an example of your research on the intersection between environmental sustainability and public policy.

While at SIPA, I collaborated with several classmates and professors to investigate the socioeconomic motivations of slash & burn agriculture and its deforestation effects in the Philippines. Slash and burn agriculture is restricted in the Philippines because it is ostensibly implicated in deforestation. The Philippines country has lost close to 70% of its primary forest cover in the last century. We conducted an analysis via household surveys and soil samples to understand motivations for further deforestation, the particulars of farming practices, and yield.

In context, many policies in the Philippines favor large scale palm oil agro-businesses, which further limit the amount of land farmers can access.  The slash and burn process is traditional in the Philippines, but requires a large amount of land to lie fallow in order to be a sustainable form of agriculture. Without sufficient access to land due to pressures from extractive industrial farming, the process is no longer environmentally sound.

Thus we see pressures of large agro-businesses that are decreasing land cover, and then environmental policies being applied that say “no more deforestation” and people who have traditionally lived off of this land and who are the most marginalized, left with no options except to go off the farm for work at one of the large plantations, or deforest protected areas in search of productive land. Many seemed to choose working at a plantation just to provide enough money to feed themselves (something they could also do if they had the appropriate farmland).

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