Hopkins Center for a Livable Future began quite
modestly, fueled by a $50,000 private donation and run by a
two-person staff for its first two years of operation.
The center's mission and goals, however, were anything
but modest — protecting the health of the biosphere
and ensuring our ability to sustain life for future
generations on this planet.
Founded in the spring of 1996, CLF became the first
academic-based center at a school of public health in the
United States focused on food production and its impact on
the environment and human health. As the world's population
and consumer demand soared, the center's founders saw an
urgent need to improve human health, prevent disease and
help preserve the Earth's finite resources.
Specifically, the center, an affiliate of the
School of Public
Health, wanted to bring scientific scrutiny to bear on
such issues as the spread of Western dietary habits, the
environmental impact of run-off from farms, livestock
production methods and the use of man-made agents
(pesticides, antibiotics, etc.) in food production.
To celebrate its first decade of food systems science,
the Center for a Livable Future will host a full-day
symposium on Wednesday, Dec. 6, to be held in the School of
Public Health's Feinstone Hall.
Michael Klag, dean of what is now the Bloomberg School
of Public Health, will kick off the ceremonies at 10 a.m.,
and Robert Lawrence, the center's founding director and
professor of environmental health sciences, will give an
introductory talk. Dean Emeritus Alfred Sommer will deliver
the symposium's keynote address, a talk titled "Science to
Policy: The Need for Both Evidence and Advocacy."
The symposium — Charting a Course to
Sustainability Through Research, Education and Service
— will feature five panel talks: Farming, Eating and
Living for the Future; Industrial Animal Production —
Public Health Implications; Industrial Agriculture —
Ecological Implications; Dietary Choices and Food Systems;
and Reducing Our Ecological Footprint.
Lawrence said that the symposium will serve to
summarize and celebrate the center's research
accomplishments to date and set the stage for future
"We feel this center has firmly put food systems on
the public health map," Lawrence said. "Food systems are
critically important and should be of concern to all. I
feel our main accomplishment is that we have significantly
advanced understanding of the fact that public health
should be much more involved in agriculture."
The Center for a Livable Future effectively began with
the efforts of activist Henry Spira, who 15 years earlier
had played a key role in the founding of the Johns Hopkins
Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. In March 1996,
Spira arranged a meeting with Sommer, then dean, to discuss
the treatment of industrial farm animals. Out of this
conversation arose a more comprehensive look into the
interconnectedness of diet, health, food production, the
environment, equity and population.
A month later, Lawrence wrote a letter and faxed a
copy to Spira to tell him of the school's plans to create
an interdisciplinary center to look into such issues. With
hard copies of the letter still sitting on his desk to be
mailed to other parties, Lawrence received a call from an
activist friend of Spira's, who offered a gift of
appreciated stock to help found the center.
"We hadn't even asked for money," he said. "Basically
put, that is how the center got started."
From the outset, the center sought to engage in three
principal activities: research, educational outreach and
community action. It quickly set out to mobilize a
community of scientists, nutritionists, public health
specialists, energy experts, political scientists,
economists, environmentalists, animal rights activists and
others to examine current food manufacture and dietary
habits and then translate that scientific data into
workable strategies and policies that could help preserve
the Earth for future generations.
Polly Walker, the center's associate director and a
research associate in the Department
of Environmental Health Sciences, said that while the
center's creation was greeted with enthusiasm, its early
growth was slow and future uncertain.
"It wasn't a shoo-in, certainly," said Walker, who
joined CLF shortly after its creation. "In some sense, the
response to our creation was actually surprising. While
some individuals were immediately drawn to the name and the
ideas, many at Hopkins were dubious."
Walker said the center's first major milestone came in
1998, when a sizable gift from a private donor allowed for
the creation of the Innovation Grants program. The purpose
of the grants, available to researchers both at Johns
Hopkins and elsewhere, was to encourage visionary work that
focuses on how to achieve a livable future, such as using
resources equitably and sustainably. CLF awards as many as
10 research grants annually in amounts up to $20,000 for
one year of support.
Walker said the grant program immediately brought in
more faculty and students and allowed the center to expand
"The money for research in this area is hard to come
by, so the Innovation Grants program provided a mechanism
to support this sort of research related to food systems
and attracted people interested in these," Walker said.
To date, dozens of grants have been awarded through
both the Innovation Grants program and directed research to
support such studies as those examining the use of
antibiotics in chicken feed, the nutritional transition in
China as its population shifts to a more Westernized
high-meat diet, and the public health and environmental
impacts of industrial animal production methods.
There is mounting evidence, Lawrence said, that the
use of antibiotics in chicken feed allows disease-causing
bacteria in humans to develop a resistance to these same
antibiotics. The Spira/Grace Project started at the center
in 1998 and has been a catalyst for supporting research and
grass-roots efforts in this area.
In the case of Hurricane Floyd, the massive floods
washed out many manure-holding lagoons from hog farms
located on North Carolina's coastal plain, creating an
overflow of waste that eventually found its way to nearby
rivers and coastal waters. The result was a 350-square-mile
dead zone, devoid of oxygen and of life, in the nation's
second-largest marine estuary.
In 2002, the center helped unveil Meatless Monday, a
national health campaign to help prevent four of the
leading causes of death in America. Research has found that
diets high in saturated fat, found mainly in meat and
high-fat dairy products, increase the risk of heart
disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke.
The work of CLF was expanded in 2004 into three main
program areas: farming, eating and living for the
Today, CLF supports predoctoral fellows, awards grants
to faculty and students, and funds directed research. Its
educational outreach includes developing courses,
generating resource materials and conducting congressional
Now in its third year, the Predoctoral Fellowship
Program supports students at JHU who are committed to
discovery or application of knowledge about the
environmental, economic, social and health impacts of
industrial animal production in the United States and
Last year, the center established a School of Public
Health course titled Nutritional Health, Food Production
and the Environment, a three-credit distance-education
course taught by Lawrence and Walker.
As to what lies ahead for the center, Lawrence said
that in many ways the work of the center is just getting
started. As industrialized food practices are resistant to
change, more research needs to be done to shed light on its
impact on human health.
"Food systems are so complex," he said. "What we are
doing is one piece of a larger effort, but a very important
piece because we are linking current food production
practices to human health. What keeps the center motivated,
to expand and increase its efforts, is the dramatic
increase in public awareness of the environmental and
health impacts of industrial agriculture, coupled with the
paradox of 1 billion overweight and obese people in
high-income countries and an equal number of hungry people
in low- income countries."