Learning About Banana Plantations Changed Everything for Emily McCarthy

Emily McCarthy came to UVM as an English major. But after writing an essay on banana plantations, she had a change of heart.

The Massachusetts native credits that essay, written during her first fall semester at UVM, with opening her eyes to sustainability in food systems.

climate change research and food systems

“My essay was about banana plantations in Costa Rica. I took something as familiar as a banana and had to think about transportation, the social dynamics in Costa Rica, and everything that had to happen to get that banana to a supermarket in my hometown,” she says. “I was shocked that I had never thought of my food in such a context.”

After that breakthrough moment in her academic career, her professor, Luis Vivanco, suggested that Emily look into the Environmental Program (ENVS) and major in Environmental Studies at UVM. She took her first ENVS course with Ingrid Nelson, and began learning about the milk industry in Jamaica.

“These were all things I hadn’t really thought about,” says Emily, who is minoring in Nutrition and Food Sciences. “What does it mean to grow something, to process it, to put it out there in a way that the community can benefit from it, and in a way the people producing it can benefit? Where is that balance? I think all of us learning about that in Ingrid’s class were taken aback because we were coming from a place of such privilege.”

The coursework also made Emily especially more aware of the intersections between climate change research and food systems. “I’m really passionate about environmental stewardship in agricultural systems,” she says. “These interactions are what made me decide to study both environmental studies and nutrition.”

Lifestyle Changes and Future Plans

Emily also began to be more mindful of what she was eating. By her sophomore year, she decided to remove meat from her diet.

“When I would go to the dining hall, I would think about all the ingredients and how it all got here,” she says. “I was raised in a family where every meal revolves around meat. But I want to figure out a way to balance my environmental perspective and reduce my carbon footprint.”

A member of the UVM Rowing Club, Emily wanted to balance her diet in a way that did not undermine the physical demands of rowing. She began cooking with kale, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and local dairy products, and split a CSA share from the Intervale with her roommates.

For Emily, it has also been important for her to learn how grow and process food. Last summer, she took a course at UVM’s Catamount Educational Farm with Terry Bradshaw, who introduced Emily to organic vegetable production and general farm management tasks.

She’s also a research assistant at UVM’s Gund Institute, working with research associate Meryl Richards in writing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reports for the sustainability organization, Ceres. Together, they analyze GHG mitigation emissions within dairy, beef, and grain commodity supply chains.

This summer, Emily will intern at the Rodale Research Institute for the St. Luke’s Farm farm-to-institute program. As she approaches her senior year at UVM, Emily says she plans to go to graduate school to study nutrition and environmental health.

“I love being a student, and I love being able to put myself in a situation and interact with others,” she says. “My climate change research with Meryl has become foundational to everything I hope to pursue in college and post grad. Ultimately, I hope that the work I do makes effective change, strengthens community-wide food security, and helps mitigate climate change.”

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