By Jackie Swift
The impact of global warming on food production is concerning. The changing climate is already affecting domesticated crops, as well as wild plants and animals that contribute to human survival. Yet, there is hope, says Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor in the Department of Global Development, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “If you look at the big picture globally, it can be hard not to despair,” she says. “But if you can focus on a particular place where you can explore the potential for making a difference, it can give you energy and momentum.”
The bulk of Bezner Kerr’s research takes place in rural Africa, where she works with small-scale farmers to help them build food security and agricultural resiliency. But through her participation in the United Nation’s (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II, she also seeks to give policymakers across the globe the latest scientific evidence about climate change.
Contributing to the UN IPCC Report on Climate Change
Bezner Kerr is a coordinating lead author for Chapter 5 of Working Group II’s Assessment Report 6 (AR6), Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability — which will be released to the public at the end of February 2022. The chapter deals with the effects of climate change on food, fiber, and other ecosystem products alongside vulnerability and adaptation within food systems. Working with a team of 14 authors, Bezner Kerr has been assessing the scientific literature that has been published on these issues since the previous UN assessment report in 2014. She is also an author of the AR6 Summary for Policymakers.
“We are creating a final draft that includes a summary synthesis of all the chapters across the report,” she explains. “We will discuss that summary line by line with governments. They will even check the underlying papers to ascertain that the evidence is there for what we state in the report. And then they will indicate their support by approving it.”
The approval of the world’s governments is crucial if the report is to make the impact that Bezner Kerr and her colleagues hope it will. “We expect it to be used by policymakers of national and municipal governments, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations,” she says. “It’s the first assessment report post–Paris Accord, and we’d like it to be significant for making decisions about the way forward.”
Agroecology in Malawi
Finding a way forward against great odds is central to Bezner Kerr’s scholarly research in southern Africa, where she focuses on sustainable agriculture and community-based educational activities to address food security and nutrition in rural communities. Much of her work takes place in Malawi, often in partnership with a Malawian farmer-led organization known as Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC).
Bezner Kerr is interested in the potential impact on poor farming communities of agroecology — a holistic, integrated approach that is a science, a set of practices, and a social movement. In the 2010s, she joined with a variety of collaborators, including SFHC, to carry out a five-year project working with 6,000 farmers in northern and central Malawi.
The Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project tested whether participatory training, where local people taught each other agroecology methods, could lead to improvements in food security, nutrition, livelihoods, and gender equity. The farmers were encouraged to follow a number of practices, including increasing the variety of crops grown, adding compost to the soil, and intercropping with legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil for other crops to use.
The practices draw on both Indigenous knowledge and techniques, and on scientific approaches, Bezner Kerr explains. “Intercropping used to be quite common in the region,” she says. “Making compost, on the other hand, isn’t a traditional practice, per se. So it’s a mixture of old and new things and some that the farmers come up with themselves. Part of this is about encouraging experimentation.”
“[Agroecology is] a mixture of old and new things and some that the farmers come up with themselves. Part of this is about encouraging experimentation.”
Solutions to Gender Inequity
Bezner Kerr and her colleagues also looked at social and cultural dimensions of the food system. “We wanted to address inequities in the community that can lead to worsening wellbeing,” she says. “One of them is gender inequity. Women take on most of the childcare and household tasks, as well as equal partnership with men in the field. But when it comes to decision making, they have little control over the harvest, among other things. There’s also high rates of domestic violence and alcohol use by men.”
Even if crop yields increase due to better agricultural methods, if the men then sell the harvest and use the money for alcohol, that actually leads to worsening household wellbeing, she points out. To address that, the researchers have explored community-based strategies for changing gender inequity, including small-group discussions and community events, such as recipe days when farmers share their harvest, as well as recipes featuring the new crops.
“At these public events, men are encouraged to get involved in food preparation,” Bezner Kerr says. “That’s a backdoor way of encouraging them to take more of a role in household tasks. If these events increasingly take place alongside one-on-one and group discussions, our research shows that this starts changing social norms.”
Assessing the Health of Forests
As an offshoot of the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project, Bezner Kerr joined with Aaron Iverson, then a Cornell postdoctorate researcher, now at St. Lawrence University; Katja Poveda, Entomology; SFHC; and researchers from Malawi, Germany, Norway, Canada, and the United States to look at the ecological impacts — including forest health — of large-scale changes to the Malawian landscape caused by agroecological practices.
Since agricultural productivity depends on a wide range of pollinators, part of the study focused on them. So far, results have shown an increased presence of bees when farms are intercropped and flowering plants are left in the borders of fields, Bezner Kerr says. In addition, the study confirmed the importance of forests for sustaining bees, butterflies and other pollinators, and insects that prey on crop-destroying bugs.
In a follow-up study funded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, Bezner Kerr is joining with Cornell University Postdoctoral Researcher Daniel Kpienbaareh, other researchers, and local Malawian farmers to jointly assess and map the forest quality around 10 communities in Malawi. In the fall of 2021, she began a sabbatical as a Fulbright Scholar in Malawi where she interviewed community members in five of the villages. The results were grim.
“Deforestation is happening very quickly,” she says. “The people are using various indicators to measure the decline. They will say, ‘There used to be many tall trees, there used to be hyenas, we used to have bees and mushrooms’ — things like that. Some declines in forest quality could be the result of climate change, but deforestation in Malawi is also driven by a rising demand from urban areas for charcoal.” Facing poverty, an unreliable electrical grid, and high prices for refined liquid fuels, many city dwellers cook with charcoal that is produced locally from wood from nearby forests. “The challenges call for engaged, collaborative research that is creative, practical, and solutions-oriented,” she says.
Local Farmers Offer Inspiration
Bezner Kerr first came to Malawi more than two decades ago as a graduate student. A local nurse invited her to interview families of children with severe malnutrition. “They told me about synthetic fertilizer being too expensive and about not knowing alternatives to it, of low crop diversity, low diet diversity, and low yields,” she says. “This was alongside high levels of gender inequality. I wondered if there were approaches that could be taken to solve this combination of problems together.”
Bezner Kerr and her colleagues started small, teaching 30 farmers agroecological practices. She was skeptical that they could make a difference but wanted to try. “A lot of the ideas have come from the farmers, and that’s been exciting,” she says. “I was motivated to keep at it because the local people I worked with were very inspiring. They wanted to change the situation.”