Purpose and Impact: Reconnecting with Research

Photo by Daniela Leon of farmers clearing land in Orissa, India

Photo by Daniela Leon; Farmers clearing land in Orissa, India

By Daniela Leon

Published August 7, 2018

Small-holder farmers around the globe use about 8% of all agricultural land, yet account for 70% of all farms. Many farmers live off what they grow and have limited access to capital, markets, land, and technology.  Subsequently, large-scale changes like urbanization, a globalizing food system, and climate change, intensely affect their economic, social, and physical health and wellbeing. 

“Working with a team of people – in India and at UB – who are devoted to social justice and equity has left me more than inspired.”
Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab

Plan REFUGE is a project led by the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities lab (Food Lab) at the University at Buffalo that seeks to understand the health and nutritional inequities facing small-holder farmers, who interact with urban and regional food systems and are facing rapidly urbanizing and changing environments in the Global South. In January 2018, a team of students from UB, led by Dr. Samina Raja, professor of urban and regional planning, principal investigator of the UB Food Lab, and team lead for the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE) Food Equity team, traveled to Kerala and Orissa, India to pilot Plan-REFUGE and investigate the types of practices farmers employ to adapt to these changes. During my time as an undergraduate student in the Environmental Design program at the University at Buffalo, I received support from the CGHE and the Food Lab to learn about farmer’s practices by documenting the physical characteristics of farms through photos, observation notes, and GPS coordinates, and to capture as much data as possible from interviews with small-holder farmers and farmer organizations.

Historically, challenges experienced by small-holder farmers have been addressed with top-down policy efforts that neglect the complexity and localized nature of urban and regional food (URF) systems. To improve the health and wellbeing of small-holder farmers, governments must understand local conditions to make well-informed policy. However, visits by local government employees to rural communities are uncommon in many places. Our community-based approach – working directly with in-country farmer organizations and independent farmers – will result in co-produced knowledge intended to create a bridge between lawmakers and local citizens. Such fine-grained knowledge can inform the development of “right place, right time” models of intervention, and identify levers that push URF systems toward sustainable futures.

At the Food Lab, we believe this bridge can affect the development or adaptation of relevant and informed policy and systems interventions and, in turn, improve farmer health and wellbeing. Working with a team of people – in India and at UB – who are devoted to social justice and equity has left me more than inspired. As researcher in an advanced interdisciplinary team that includes faculty, post docs, and graduate students I am constantly thinking about food systems work and community development from a variety of angles. The opportunity to conduct field research was certainly overwhelming however, the support and preparation by CGHE and the Food Lab has left me with great passion and the skills necessary to remain conscious about the purpose of my research. My work in India allowed me to step into the world I had only read and written about; giving my research a new meaning. I can now grasp clearly how my actions can influence another’s life.