An Uncertain Future: Exploring Barriers to Well-being among Smallholder Farmers in Odisha, India

Odisha, India Photo by Daniela Leon.

Photo by Daniela Leon, Odisha, India

By Erin Sweeney

Published August 14, 2018

The majority of the population living in the state of Odisha, India, earn a living as cultivators – 53% work their land for more than 6 months a year. In 2013, these farmers produced a surplus of 124 million tons of rice, yet the population still suffers from undernourishment (21%) and poverty (32%), and 40% of children under five are underweight

“Through this work I have grown to understand the systemic challenges facing farmers, especially how globalization, urbanization, climate change, and policy impact farmers’ daily living practices.”
Erin Sweeney, Graduate Assistant
Community for Global Health Equity

I have collaborated with smallholder farmers and local policymakers in rural and urbanizing communities through research in the United States. Through this work I have grown to understand the systemic challenges facing farmers, especially how globalization, urbanization, climate change, and policy impact farmers’ daily living practices. I anticipated that farmers in Odisha, India, might experience these challenges differently; however, I found that the impacts of globalization, urbanization, and climate change create some similar conditions for farming households and communities in both places.

Our team, organized by Dr. Samina Raja’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, and with support from the University at Buffalo’s Community for Global Health Equity, traveled to the states of Kerala and Odisha to explore how smallholder farmers are adapting their daily living practices in response to systemic challenges related to urbanization, globalization, extreme weather, and policy. We were specifically interested in understanding the impact of those challenges on farmer well-being, by exploring agrarian, politico-economic, environmental, social and cultural factors, as well as household diet and health.

In Odisha, our team met with farmers as well as community stakeholders who represent and support smallholder farmers and local policymakers who may (or may not) consider the needs and assets of smallholders in policymaking.

Our conversations with 10 smallholder farmers in three districts, as well as 12 community stakeholders and government officials, illustrate the extent to which smallholder farmers make trade-offs that impact their wellbeing. We intend to develop a series of community-informed recommendations for sub-national policies that support, rather than undermine, smallholder farmers, allowing for more equitable, healthful, and viable futures for farmers and their families.

I was fortunate to act as team lead for the work in Odisha. I had the opportunity to build relationships with local stakeholders to move toward sustaining partnerships, conduct interviews high-level state officials, and gain skills in guiding research goals and agendas. In this role, I was challenged to represent the breadth of UB research and knowledge as a graduate student, and learn to articulate our vision and objectives in a concise and culturally appropriate manner. I gained firsthand knowledge about smallholder farmers’ daily practices, which have informed my own research interests and perspective. I look forward to taking the lessons I have learned from this work to Southeast Asia, where I, as a Fulbright Student Scholar, will be researching the impact of land use policy on food production in Singapore.