August 23, 2019
The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?
Answer: I was born in India, which is a developing country. My grandparents had a small subsistence farm. As the family expanded, some stayed on the farm, but my father left and became a professor of genetics and plant breeding. I was always fascinated by how decisions were made on the farm, like what to grow, how much to grow, what price to expect, and how to make it from planting season to harvest.
When I went to college I took my first microeconomic course and learned about how supply and demand creates prices and also how prices change if there’s a shock in the system. My curiosity about this was how to understand the behavior of people, because the reason people buy less or more isn’t just prices. It differs between countries and cultures, and there are differences between democratic, and centrally planned or authoritarian economies. All of this filters down into the everyday life of people, both consumers and producers. It’s a very complicated system that is fascinating to study.
Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
A: My research work is mainly focused in South and Southeast Asia, thinking about why after so many years of economic development efforts, small farmers are still not able to increase and stabilize incomes, diversify their portfolio of crops and assets, and move into different professions, such as self-employed businesses, rural entrepreneurship. Why aren’t they giving up farming? Some are doing it, but others are stuck in the same old system. It could be credit, or access to the market, or lack of technology.
I’m looking at value chains, or vertical coordination, in high-value crops like onion, ginger, tomatoes, milk, organic basmati rice. How can we improve supply chains to help small producers? Can we find ways, through cooperatives and private businesses to provide the right information and technology to create stable prices, and reward the farmer’s efforts? Then you can have food security. Farmers are able to get income, they can raise a family, and escape from poverty.
I’m also looking at how climate change affects cropping patterns and planting decisions in Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam can produce high quality rice, but sea level rise is increasing the salinity of the soil. Because of this, rice production has had to move to higher elevations, and now farmers are using the lower fields to grow shrimp. They are changing the production patterns of food systems because of climate change.
I’m interested in how farm families cope with climate change in terms of farm investments and off-farm jobs. We’re finding that the perception of climate change differs by gender, with men more concentrated on farming activities, and women more focused on household financial investments and asset diversification. It all comes back to understanding human behavior, because humans are very strategic. If we can get these farmers credit or the right technology, then we will see them thriving, and becoming food secure.
Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
A: Everything I work on is from the producer perspective, but there is a lot happening in terms of the consumer perspective. Are we meeting the needs of consumers? Farmers are getting information about what to produce from contractors and markets, who are getting information from consumers, but is there waste in the system? Are farmers who don’t contract production producing more waste in the system? Food waste is a good topic that can be investigated further from both a consumer and producer perspective.
Q: What’s your favorite food?
A: Sushi! Both sashimi and sushi, but mostly vegetarian. I usually have it for lunch. I started eating it when I was visiting Japan with my parents. It’s great because it’s a small and controlled portion size, fresh, and they make it right in front of you.