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Through USDA grant, MSU experts will build resilient food systems from seed to table

By Chelsea Stein
Monday, June 12, 2023

Crop disease, extreme weather events and storms, fluctuations in demand, energy costs, transportation and storage options for perishable food, varied production and lead times — these are just some of the challenges facing America’s agrifood systems.

Finding innovative solutions to address these complex problems requires diverse perspectives and collaboration. To that end, a team of researchers, educators and experts led by Michigan State University has received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build more resilient agrifood systems.

Judith Whipple, interim dean of the Broad College and Donald J. Bowersox and Robert W. Thull Professor in Logistics and Supply Chain Management, is a member of the team, bringing her supply chain expertise to the table.

The Broad College of Business selects Judith Whipple, who has served as the faculty director of the college's M.S. in Supply Chain Management since 2018, to serve as interim dean designee.

“It’s exciting to be a part of such a broad, multidisciplinary team,” she said. “When looking at issues across agrifood systems, we need to understand challenges on the consumer/institutional side as well as the supply side, including agriculture and natural resource availability, and consider impacts to food safety and food insecurity. I’m able to bring the supply chain perspective and help map out what agrifood systems look like to identify pain points and potential mitigation strategies.”

The five-year project, funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, aims to improve resiliency and flexibility of agrifood systems across the Midwest and beyond. The team will model and test concurrent shocks to agrifood systems to devise actionable and alternate mitigation strategies, along with launching training and educational resources for future generations of farmers, researchers and business leaders.

“The focus of this research is to understand where pain points exist and what strategies are needed to address those unique issues,” Whipple said. “The strategies may be different for natural disasters compared to supply chain disruptions, for example, so we’ll explore multiple potential strategies, while also considering flexibility in local and regional agrifood sources because the agrifood system is so interconnected.”

Whipple’s previous experience includes research focused on the agrifood system, specifically understanding collaborative efforts between food manufacturers and retailers, as well as food security issues. She also previously served as the director of the Food Industry Management Program at MSU as a faculty member in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources prior to joining the Broad College.

“I’m able to bring the supply chain perspective and help map out what agrifood systems look like to identify pain points and potential mitigation strategies.”

“Having experience in two different colleges within the university has provided me with a unique perspective and instilled the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to solving complex problems,” she said, noting how supply chain management, for example, plays a role from seed to table across all the different nodes and links in agrifood systems.

“From the work that’s done in the fields, at the producer level, and in manufacturing as well as transporting and strategically positioning finished products in warehouses to delivering items to grocery stores, restaurants or even consumers’ homes, the supply chain crosses all of these elements,” she said. “There is a confluence of factors influencing agrifood, and over the last few years we’ve seen many critical vulnerabilities in our agrifood systems that require new solutions.”

Like Whipple, Broad faculty often lend their expertise as partners on research projects, advancing knowledge and addressing problems that influence industries like business, agriculture and STEM.

“This is a great example of how the Broad College of Business is known throughout the university for its unique expertise and ability to contribute to advancing knowledge and solving complex problems that go beyond the bounds of any one discipline,” John Hollenbeck, associate dean of research and Eli Broad University Professor of Business, said. “Although the business school is, more often than not, taking the lead on small and mid-sized grants, we are generally not in a position to lead very large grants like this one. Thus, having other colleges reach out to us as part of huge efforts such as this is critical to our success in securing funding in a sustainable way.”

This research team is led by Brent Ross, associate chairperson for undergraduate programs and associate professor in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and includes experts from the College of Education as well as external institutions and organizations. To learn more about the project and the participating experts and partners, visit canr.msu.edu.

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