Three years ago, Elliott Campbell made headlines with research that suggested that existing U.S. cropland could feed most of the nation’s population with food produced within 50 miles.Those eye-popping findings, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, delighted the “local food” movement. For Campbell, they underscore the importance of testing the viability of environmental initiatives that have captured the popular imagination.
“I take these dreamy ideas and see if the numbers play out,” said Campbell, an associate professor of environmental studies and the inaugural recipient of the Stephen R. Gliessman Presidential Chair in Water Resources and Food System Sustainability. “That study was exciting, because it showed how much potential there is. Right now only about 1 percent of food is produced within the ‘local food’ parameters.”
Campbell, who joined the faculty in July, is an environmental engineer who is drawn to research at the nexus of food, water, and energy. The Central Coast is a perfect “laboratory,” because he is particularly intrigued by opportunities that pop up when urban and agricultural areas are in close proximity.
Building on the “local food” work, Campbell is eager to explore whether reclaimed wastewater generated by cities could be used to recharge aquifers that have been depleted by agriculture. “The Central Coast is unparalleled when it comes to using reclaimed water for edible crops,” said Campbell. “We need to reuse water, and we need to recirculate water.”
Similarly, Campbell is interested in recirculating nutrients between cities and farms—specifically nutrients that are lost when food turns to waste.
“Forty percent of food goes to waste,” said Campbell. “When we divert waste from the landfill as compost, ideally we send it back to farms. But compost is a bulky, low-value product; it doesn’t make sense to transport it long distances. It needs to be generated near cities for use on nearby farms.”
Campbell refers …