Rachel Bezner Kerr: Taking a farmer-led approach to food justice

Over the last few decades, the government of Malawi provided farmers in the country with subsidies to purchase synthetic fertilizers and commercial maize seed. Over time, the subsidy programs transformed thousands of small farming operations into primarily maize fields, and increased reliance on purchased inputs. It was a pattern replicated across many countries in rural Africa.

But the change came with a cost. Indigenous knowledge on organic farming practices faded, and the move away from traditional, diversified farming rippled through the social dynamics of the landlocked country in the southeast part of Africa that is home to now more than 19 million people. When the subsidy was removed in the 1990s, the price of fertilizer increased dramatically, and many farmers did not have knowledge or alternatives to fall back on. Since families relied on maize as their primary food source and as a source of income, rates of malnutrition increased across the country.

As international collaborations and technical experts have crossed borders to tackle food security issues on a global scale, in its wake has formed an unintended hierarchical structure that often silences farmers voices, says Rachel Bezner Kerr, who focuses on participatory research methods for environmental science and international development.

Bezner Kerr, professor of global development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, envisioned a new method to confront the issue. Starting in the early 2000s, she formed a collaborative research program focused on agroecology, the study of ecological processes in agriculture alongside its social impact on rural communities. She interviewed families who had admitted children into the hospital for severe malnutrition, and found that, alongside monotonous diets and lack of knowledge of alternative to fertilizer for growing enough food, women experienced domestic violence and men struggled with alcohol abuse, worsening the situation for severely food insecure families.

“We had to pay attention to much more than just soil fertility when trying to understand the complex social dynamics felt by farmers in Malawi and across Africa,” Bezner Kerr says. “Agriculture is a complex issue that ties together so much of the human experience like gender dynamics and child feeding.”

For farmers, by farmers

Farmer-led, participatory research is at the core of Bezner Kerr’s work. Born out of her collaborative research in 2000, the Malawian farmer-run nonprofit Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) she helped found is showing what is possible when long-term partnerships grow. From SFHC’s original 30 members to now over 10,000 farmers in 200 villages across Malawi, the nonprofit leads research on sustainable agriculture practices. The nonprofit’s research looks to improve soil fertility, but at the same time impact food security, gender equity and child nutrition.

As farmers themselves have identified and experimented with new sustainable agriculture methods, they’ve witnessed measurable improvements in household food security, better diets, child growth, nutrition and education, as well as gender equity. Their contributions to valuable research are evident in 20+ co-authored peer reviewed publications.

Bezner Kerr’s engagement with SFHC led to the founding of a Cornell-affiliated U.S. nonprofit Friends of SFHC, housed in the Center for Transformative Action. “This long-term partnership has produced meaningful, engaged and community-based collaborative research that has continually built on previous findings and pursued new questions,” she says.

A south-south dimension

Inspired by this community-based approach, Bezner Kerr’s research expanded to Tanzania with a similar research question: When you diversify crops using participatory methods, what happens not only to agriculture but to child nutrition and gender dynamics?

With support from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, Bezner Kerr’s team developed an interdisciplinary curriculum on agroecology, gender, nutrition and climate change. Farmers from 20 Tanzanian villages received intensive training in Malawi and Tanzania to become mentors for others. The trainings included hands-on activities, theater and music. The mentor farmers then returned to their villages to train hundreds of farmers, and over a four-year period resulted in significant improvements in child dietary diversity and household food security.

This initiative sheds light on a refreshing narrative in international development: “It has been a real source of inspiration to see how farmers are willing to take risks, try new experiments and share that knowledge with others,” Bezner Kerr says. The cooperation between Malawian and Tanzanian farmers brought together local leaders in the global south. Bezner Kerr says this south-south dimension promotes innovation and knowledge sharing amongst neighboring countries.

The farmer-to-farmer exchanges are at the heart of what global development is all about when collaboration is prioritized.

“Our work done collaboratively with Malawians and Tanzanians has shown how effective it can be to draw from local resources and local knowledge,” Bezner Kerr says. “Questions of social equity should be at the center of any approach to address global challenges of food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition or sustainable farming.”

Engaged learning to localize food systems

The knowledge sharing doesn’t stop just between farmers. Bezner Kerr has involved dozens of Cornell undergraduate and graduate students in her work on campus and abroad, with experiential learning opportunities ranging from international engagement to on-campus research, data analysis, and podcast development.

“We want our students to understand food systems holistically – not just how to grow food, but also the social, ecological and political dimensions of food systems” Bezner Kerr says. “We want them to ask: What is the broader context that shapes a community? What are the barriers to addressing food security or sustainable food production in a place?”

Teaching courses such as Just Food and Agriculture, Food, Sustainability and Social Justice, Bezner Kerr introduces students to community-based approaches alongside analyses of the historical, political and social roots of local food systems. It was this framework that inspired the creation of the Community Food Systems minor, which Bezner Kerr directs and co-founded in 2018 with support from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives.

“Cornell students see the connection between food and social, environmental and political dimensions and then they also see local issues as very salient,” Bezner Kerr says. “They get inspired to make a difference in their own lives and often change their career trajectory.” Motivated by student’s interest to engage with local farms, Bezner Kerr helped launch the new Lund Fellows Program for Regenerative Agriculture which will provide Cornell undergraduate students across disciplines with the opportunity to broaden their perspectives and understanding of natural ecosystems in New York state. The new program gives Cornell students the chance to learn about ecological and social approaches to agricultural systems in new ways.

On the global stage

Bezner Kerr’s community-based approach using agroecology is now getting attention at the international policy level, including the United Nations’ report on agroecology for the Committee for World Food Security, which has been endorsed by governments, and the United Nations Environment Programme. Agroecology has also received recognition from international groups such as the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (named as a priority for research) and the International Panel on Climate Change, where agroecology was listed as an important adaptation option in the Special Report on Land in 2019. Bezner Kerr has been invited to participate in these international policy activities due to her on-the-ground expertise applying agroecological methods and addressing social equity considerations.

This article also appeared in the CALS Newsroom.

Kelly Merchan is a communications specialist in the Department of Global Development.

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