State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


How We Put Our Spreadsheets Where Our Stomachs Are

brunch picture_revisedWhy would 19 undergraduates be in a professor’s apartment — devouring a mouth-watering brunch of sweet potato hash browns, egg tortilla with leeks and tomatoes, and an oatmeal and spelt-crusted apple crisp – when they should be in class?  Isn’t this Columbia University, where students are normally loaded with readings and rigor rather than relaxation on a weekday morning?

After many weeks of debate, scouring for relevant papers, constructing spreadsheets, and calculating carbon, nitrogen and water footprints for long lists of ingredients, this was the menu that students in the class Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development had voted as the most “sustainable” compared with four other options. Instructors of the class, offered within Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, had set up a challenge for the students. Design a “sustainable brunch” and defend it to your peers. The class will cook and consume the one with the most votes.

Seem like a fluffy assignment? Just put together a menu from the local farmer’s market, make sure the ingredients have the “organic” label, and assignment completed. But not so fast. We learned that simple questions are the trickiest to answer.

Right off the bat, we were faced with the difficult question of what “sustainable” actually means. Students were well-versed in the triple bottom line of sustainability – economic, environmental and social. Then one of the students, a hefty young man on Columbia’s wrestling team, spoke up in defense of his right to make a decision based on his need for large quantities of protein. Another student wanted products only from well-treated animals. The professor was allergic to chocolate.

Everyone has his or her own preferences, tastes and needs. If the class couldn’t even agree, then how can society work together for a more sustainable food system? So we added another pillar to economic, environmental and social. An individual pillar. If people just don’t like a so-called sustainable solution, then the solution is not so sustainable.

Then the class pondered how we can compare one menu against another. Feel-good menus and what seems right would not pass muster. So the students set out on reading papers, combing the Internet and constructing a massive spreadsheet to put numbers behind their arguments.  Carbon, water and nitrogen footprints and costs were calculated. Waste was weighed with a kitchen scale. Surveys of people in the street quantified how “scalable” the menus really were for a larger group of people. The commonplace notion that local is better fell by the wayside as the analysis showed that transport is actually a minor component of carbon emissions from food production. We learned that first impressions on what might be a sustainable ingredient do not always pan out under scrutiny.

In the end, we learned a few key lessons, not just for the delicious meal we concocted, but for sustainable development more generally. Metrics matter. Measuring and quantifying the real impact is important and sometimes counter-intuitive. Decisions involve trade-offs based on values and beliefs. The process raised more questions than it answered, the telltale sign of a “wicked” problem. Amid bites of hash browns and apple crisp, students confronted these realities of sustainable development.

Instructors for the class are Ruth DeFries and Kevin Griffin. Tiancheng Deng is the teaching assistant. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development visit our website or contact Jessica Sotomayor, program coordinator, at

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