Episode 92: Neva Hassanien | University of Montana Environmental Studies Program | Missoula, MT

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Episode 92: Neva Hassanien | University of Montana Environmental Studies Program |  Missoula, MT

I connected with Neva at the AERO Expo after hearing the EVST students sing her praises! Neva brought the EVST (environmental studies) students from the University of MT who are more of the amazing millennials who are making positive changes in our world today.

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Many of which are part of the Food Corps program.

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From the UMT EVST Sustainable Agriculture Emphasis home page: “The study of food systems lends itself beautifully to true interdisciplinary learning and problem solving. It also has the capacity to profoundly connect us with nature and the place we live. Students will discover our food system’s complexity and vulnerability, and they will be able to ask informed questions. Students often learn a lot about the serious environmental problems confronting society, but they hunger for the opportunity to do something about it, something tangible and real. Accordingly, the Sustainable Food and Farming emphasis will give them the tools to do so. Educated, our graduates will be more to able to exercise the privileges of citizenship, more able to care.

Our vision is to provide students at the graduate and undergraduate level with the opportunity for (1) intensive interdisciplinary study of our food system; (2) hands-on experience growing organic food for low-income people on an urban farm; (3) community-based action research; and (4) active civic engagement.”

Tell us a little about yourself.

AERO MT (Alternative Energy Resources Organization) one of the groups in Montana working to promote sustainable agriculture and food systems and communities. So it was a pleasure to be there this year and enjoy the company of people from across the state who are thinking about how to build a more resilient and sustainable future. My work has encompassed a variety of things including, I lead up our emphasis on sustainable food and farming which we really developed about 12-13 years ago and it has become very popular aspect of our program.

Do you want to tell us, I told listeners, I didn’t know, when I went to school in 1988 that there was an environmental studies major, I didn’t know what an environmental activist was do you want to tell listeners what an environmental studies (EVST) major is and what they would study?

We have a program at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. Environmental studies basically tries to take an interdisciplinary disciplinary look at environmental problems. We’re basically convinced environmental problems are not going to be solved with narrow technical solution, or at least in very few cases will that happen,  instead environmental problems encompass economical. social, economic, political, the arts, and humanities, a whole variety of perspectives need to be brought to bear in order to solve our environmental problems.

We require our students to take courses in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities and they go a little deeper in particular areas that interest them. For instance, a lot of my students are working on food and agriculture, they look at it from a whole host of directions.

Some are very interested in farming, they look at very practical hands on topics, others are interested in agriculture,  more generally, for instance how farmers are adapting to drought and climate change. They also end up looking at the other end of the food system, where is our food going?

Here in Montana, we have a well developed farm-2-school program, I recently had a students who studied the impact of those programs on Montana. So our students pursue a whole range of topics. We as professors see our job as seeing help students identify their interests and then supporting them in pursuing what they want to do in a variety of ways. That’s the basic philosophy of our program, we incorporate both traditional academics as well as hands-on learning or experientially learning, because we know that especially as adults, learn best by doing and reflecting on their experiences.

The EVST program here at UMT, has been around since 1970. We’re one of the oldest EVST programs in the country at the graduatte level, it was founded as a masters program. The undergrad program was added in the late ’90s so it is relatively recent but the program has a long history here in Montana.

It seems like when I went there you could get an EVST minor or emphasis through the humanities program?

That was before my time, it was sort of the pre-cursor to our regular major. Now you can get a regular major/minor or a masters degree, so we have the full options now.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background?

I grew up in NY State. I did not grow up on a farm, or really have anything to do with agriculture while I was growing up, except I did start gardening at a young age under the mentorship of a dear family friend. But I got really interested in agriculture as a college student I was fortunate to travel to Kenya. This was in the early 1980s and I was struck when I was there by these vast fields being used to grow export crops.

Primarily, to send coffee and tea and sugar to Europe, at that time, those were the main crops. It really struck me, that here was the best land growing export crops and yet there were people hungry. So I studied how agriculture policy can influence food availability and hunger in a country and that’s really what got me started on this topic. I also decided at that time that my efforts would be best spent in the United States, rather then doing international work, I had been considering that, because I felt that I really needed to contribute to change here. So much of U.S. policy and practices get exported elsewhere, and we really need to clean up our own act before we admonish others to do differently. That kind of started my work on this topic. Then in my 20s, fortuitously, I landed a job working on pesticides issues in Oregon, so I have a lot of history trying to reform the laws that govern pesticide use. Then I also worked for a few years in Montana in the early ’90’s for the Northern Plains Resource Council, before leaving to get my PhD. Then I moved back to Montana in 2000. I have been here ever since and love it!

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So last night we had the movie GMO OMG! played in Eureka, one of the things I learned that was kind of neat, was how the Roundup Resistant seeds, grow, and then something wraps around the plant and the weeds would die and the corn or soybeans that are resistant would grow. That would have something to do with the work you did with pesticides.

I’ve done more work recently on genetic engineering, basically what that involves taking a gene from a different organize and inserting it into another species. So the easiest way to think about it, we often here the word trans-genetic or trans-gene that means they are literally transferring a gene from one species to another species and these plants and animals or plants and bacteria would not naturally make, that would not naturally reproduce.

Unlike traditional plant breeding which is basically selecting particular plants, for particular traits for particular traits. Genetic engineering brings in a trait from another species and puts into the seed of interest. So a Roundup ready, herbicide gene put into existing seed germaplasm. As you said, corn, they take the seed that’s being used for corn in this country mostly and they’ll put the roundup ready trait into it. The other major type of genetic engineering that occurs in agriculture today is creating insecticidal plants so using the BT toxin

Bacillus thuringiensis…it’s a naturally occurring soil baccteria use it to control things like codling moth in the case of genetic engineering they put it into the plant to the seed, for the crop plant and then that plant becomes insecticidal. So in other words when the bole weevil bites the cotton plant, it will get a dose of BT and it’s stomach explodes and that’s how it controls the pests.

They were  pointing a fields of corn and saying that’s a field of pesticides there, and the guy was like and we’re eating that? And the answer was basically.  That they are actually putting the pesticide into the plant. My big concern and one big thing in the movie that too was that we don’t really need to spray those pesticides we don’t really need  corn with Roundup to begin with. There’s a fallacy out there that we need to do this to feed all the people in the world, that we are already growing enough food to feed 14 billion people, and we only have 7 billion people today. We’re already growing enough food to feed all the people in the world. 

2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics

I don’t know that statistic. We may have enough calories. We certainly have enough calories being produced whether that’s nutritious food? Is another question.

Then are people getting it anyway? We have hungry people?

The key thing is that hunger and food insecurity are not the result of a lack of food being produced in the world today. They are the result of poverty, they are the result of people not making a livable wage. Often times people have to make a choice, do I put milk on the table for my kids or do I keep the heat on? … and in Montana those are really critical decisions that people have to make. Do I pay rent or do I feed my kids better food? And so, fortunately we have in many parts of Montana a good food safety net. In rural areas, many rural areas in Montana, do not have enough access to food banks or food pantries and the like. That’s something we all need to keep in mind and work to improve.

Where I live in Lincoln County we have the highest rate of unemployment in the state, next to the reservation in Glacier County. We actually probably do pretty good here, I don’t really know, my biggest concern is in Kalispell. I know they’re economy is booming, is this food desert, where they built this huge high school, there’s a big apartment complex, theres a huge Honda dealership, there’s a Home Depot, there’s a Target, there is Walmart, there is a Naturals, but I just don’t feel that is an economical solution for people. The closest place for the kids to get food is McDonald’s, Applebees, Starbucks. Then as you drive down the highway you get to the hospital and then it’s probably a mile down the road to Albertsons is probably the closes. That McDonald’s is the closest place in walking distance, to get to Naturals is across a major highway.

These are the kind of access issues that are really important to consider, especially in Montana, where the distance between where people live and groceries can be quite far. There’s a term called the food desert that looks at the distance that people have to travel that people to get to a major supermarket or a full service supermarket as opposed to a convenience store. In a lot of our rural areas people have to travel an hour or more to get to a decent grocery store. Well if you’re having to make choices between gas in the car, because we often don’t have public transportation between rural towns and cities, and if you’re having to choose between putting gas in your car and having good food on the table heating your house and can present a real challenge to folks.

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There are a lot of efforts to increase access to nutritious food across Montana including in the remote areas. Food Corps is a program that helps to do just that. It was developed by Chrissy McMullan here in Montana, although now it is a national program, so Montana has a lot to be proud of.  Basically Food Corps is connected to Americorps Vista, young people mostly who want to serve, who want to help with food related issues can apply to join Food Corps. Then they spend a year working in a community to improve the school lunches, helping schools procure buy local food, helping them set up school gardens, doing nutrition programs in the classroom. These kinds of things because our young people and much of our population having a growing rate of obesity, but at least in the last few years, childhood obesity in decline, it’s just the last couple of years, I think in part that’s from the attention given to it all the way from the White House down to the lunch ladies! So that’s a great sign.

That is a good sign. Tell us some more about the environmental studies program and what options students have if they were going to join the EVST program. Do they have to have a strong science background? 

As I mentioned before, we require that students take some natural science, some social science, and some humanities. Some students might choose to go deeper into those areas. For instance we have a lot of students who are interested in environmental writing. They are writing essays and books on various environmental topics. That’s one focus area within our program.

The program emphasis on sustainable food and farming area. Students are doing a wide variety of things in that. They have added a lot here in Montana to this emerging movement around local and regional food.

So you can find our alumni in places like community development corporations or community garden programs, or working on policy and advocacy around genetic engineering, or organic policy, so our students end up doing a whole range of different things and that’s just fine with us. We want people to pursue their passions, to contribute to making the world a better place.

We have a strong emphasis on civic engagements, and people being involved in our democracy. Citizenship has become a lost art tin the U.S. and we need to reclaim that, I believe get more and more and more involved in our government desicioons, and not leave those decisions up to our the so-called experts and so called professional lobbyists, and instead, reclaim our democracy from corporate influence.

We really emphasize and encourage students to be involved in the issues of the day, as they see fit. It’s not surprising that our students end up in politics, in non-governmental organizations and governmental agencies and a whole host of other arenas.

I totally agree. I’ve been studying a lot of business and entrepreneurs podcasts and a lot of the millennials want to incorporate that into the businesses they are creating and they look for that in the place they’re going to work at in their future. It seems like they are much more interconnected what you said about the it’s not all that complicated, there’s not that many things that people can’t help with… One of the things in that movie last night, Bill McKibbon was saying that when our country was started 58% of the people were farmers and now its down to 2% and for the first time we now have more farmers then we did in the previous year. Finally for the first time in history we turned it so there are more farmers then in a declining.

I think that’s gonna be part of the answer is taking the food back. Certainly at AERO we met more people who are growing food organically being more cost effective. Bob Quinn and the Timeless Seeds people growing the lentils. Tom Lampman who was just one of my last interviews in episode 90, who is up in Canada working in the Dairy industry, said that even though they own the land they are just indebted to the bank or the chemical companies who provide them the pesticides and that organic is almost cheaper because you’re not having to borrow all that money. Then they interviewed the guy from the Farm Trial at Rodale’s who’s been comparing them for 30 years, when you’r going for yield instead of quality. If you focus on quality you are going to  produce more in the long run.

History of agriculture in this country, we had a very deliberate process starting about 100 years ago when the Land Grant Universities were established the idea was to increase yield in agriculture so that it would free up people to go do other things, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t all need to be in agriculture but it was so effective that basically there are more people in prison in this country today then there are in agriculture. It was really effective, it increased yields, and it reduced the amount of labor requires to grow food today because a lot of labor has been replaced with technology. So on the one hand that’s a real benefit of modern agriculture.

That process accelerated after the 2nd World War, and chemicals and synthetic fertilizers became much more common in your agriculture system today. In fact farmers were in many ways  given incentives to adopt those technologies and to maximize their yield through governemtn programs, while there is a benefit to that productivity I think there are a couple of things to recognize, there are alternatives! People like the farmers at Timeless Seeds, people who are using lower input practices can do very well! It takes some time in the transition! It takes a while if you are moving from chemical to organic to lower input because the the soil needs to recover and build through green maneuvers, cover crops, compost and that kind of thing.

I just read an article from Maria Rodale about the transition an how the government  can help with that transition.

Basically what we do is we reward and subsidized industrialized production and not so much alternative strategies. hopefully that will continue to change, even just getting more research done on the alternatives.

One thing its important to remember, is the farmers who are using, they are not stupid. They know these chemicals are problematic, they work with them day in and day out. They know they are expensive, a lot of times they feel like its the way they have to farm, and it takes some risks, and you need support to make transitions. Thankfully some of that is underway.

The important thing to remember is that it’s not about individuals, or people being bad, it’s about systems and policies that need to change to make our farming practices more sustainable. There are some of these changes underfoot, I think the economic influence has a huge impact. In other words, historically we have created a system of agriculture in this country that has replaced, what used to come from on the farm with inputs that are purchased from off the farm. Farms used to provide their own fertility, but  with synthetic fertilizers fairly cheap that are easy to apply , farmers replace that fertility with something from off the farm.

But when prices go up of those fertilizers, when the prices of oil go up, because they are based on petroleum and natural gas, farmers find that their costs go up but they don’t necessarily make more when they go to sell their grains. Many farmers have transitioned because of this economic opportunity to reduce their costs as much as any philosophical commitment. Often times when they start to transition they see the benefits. And they may go deeper and deeper into this.

For instance someone like Bob Quinn got into organic ag out of a philosophical reason but as economic opportunity, but now he totally believes in it, and is probably one of the leading organic farmers in the country. We need to think about it in a lot of dimensions there, when we think about people making changes to their farming operations.

I had another guest from down in New Mexico, Dave Salman from High Country Gardens in episode 50. He had a horticultural degree from Colorado but when he started his nursery he wanted to find ways to help his customers and clients be more successful and that’s what he found was the best way to help his plants grow in their landscapes. To me it’s always back to education to empower people to make the right choice. I also feel its important for us to reach out to our Congressman. Jon Tester wants people to support, when he wants support with the labeling act. He can do it by himself, its the people that make the changes

Need to work with Senator Tester, he has been one of the strongest advocates for the public’s right to know about the ingredients in our food. He has supported programs for beginning farmers, for agriculture some of the best pieces in the farm bill. He has done a terrific job in the agricultural realm . He is the only working farmer in the Senate! And he happens to be an organic farmer! He understands the constraints and opportunities that are involved. We couldn’t ask for a stronger senator then Jon Tester on this issue.

And to have someone who is an farmer and chosen to be an organic farmer.

It used to be when they first went organic, it was hard to hold your head up high in rural country, it was seen as a throwback, it was something that was going to take us back to the old ages. Many organic farmers are doing better because of the premium and reduced cost that they have. I think today that has turned on its head when people like Senator Tester took risks and went organic years ago.

It’s nice to see that they are doing it on large acres of land. Not just 3 acres or a 1/4 acre. Anything else you want to share with us about the Program or the students.

You talked earlier about the millennials and that’s the group I work with a lot. I think that they are engaged and interested in food issues, because they realize that food is central to our lives as human beings as well as culturally its the way we interact with the natural world, every day, whether thinking about it or not, whatever we do today we’re gonna do because we first ate something that grew from the soil.  The food issues raise important questions about how we structure our economy access to inequality, I think that young people are very interested in these topics because of this interdisciplinary nature of it. They are very excited about growing food. Many didn’t grow up on farms, yet they want to learn about food.

One of our most popular programs in Enviromental Studies is PEAS

Program and Ecological Agriculture and Society.

PEAS bunching carrots

The PEAS farm grows 10s of 1000s of pounds of food a year. They arenot certified organic but basically they follow organic practices. It goes to community members, through CSA program, it also goes to the food bank and the Homeless shelter, here in Missoula. So they are trying to get healthy nutritious food to be available to anyone who wants it and needs it. So our students not only learn how to grow food, but they learn a lot about community. They learn about the larger food system issues as well as the importance of taking some responsibility as citizens for our neighbors and being involved and caring about our communities. I’m encouraged by their enthusiasm, just like you said you are as well. So I hope that we will be able to continue to support them in these efforts and have them lead us into the future. GCHarvestLogo

It’s about 2 miles from campus up in the Rattlesnake on almost 10 acres. We partner with an organization called Garden City Harvest here in Missoula. They run the CSA, and they also manage a youth harvest program that involves at risk youth, also working on the farm side-by-side with our college and  graduate students which is a tremendous mentoring experience. You may want to talk to Josh Slotnik conceived and started this idea in 1997, important part of community and much loved.

Awesome I think listeners are going to enjoy hearing about this and learning about the opportunities.  I knew quite a few people that were in a program. I can’t remember what it was called. Is that through the Environmental Studies program?

They’re strong partners. Thats through the school of Forestry and Conservation Wilderness and Civilization Program.  But a lot of our students end up going through it.

How can people contact you?

Contact me through the UMT EVST program websites though the faculty listing on our page.

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