Learning to Plan for Regenerative Equitable Food Systems in Urbanizing Global Environments

Team with farmers in Kerala.

Small-holder farms provide at least 50% of the agricultural output for domestic consumption in most low- and middle-income countries. Yet, they bear the brunt of food insecurity that is amplified by multiple challenges including limited access to capital, markets, land, information/training, and technology, political stressors, gender inequities, and more recently climate change. 

Estimates suggest that globally about 68,000,000 hectares, or 15.7 percent, of all irrigated and rain-fed cropland is in urban and peri-urban areas. Yet communities lack the strategies for creating regenerative and equitable urban and regional food systems that benefit small-holder farmers, a gap Planning for Regenerative, Equitable Food Systems in Urbanizing Global Environments (Plan-REFUGE) initiative at the University at Buffalo seeks to address. 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. An alternative approach, the Plan-REFUGE team argues, should be farmer-centered, to co-produce knowledge about the barriers experienced by farmers, as well as the adaptations farmers make to overcome challenges and maximize opportunities within URF systems. Such fine-grained knowledge will inform the development of place-based models of intervention and systemic and policy responses.

Students affiliated with the Plan-REFUGE initiative recently spent time to understand the experiences of small-holder farms, as well as the policies and governance structures that influence small-holder farmers and URF systems in multiple parts of India. Although students worked in teams, each individual also has a unique area of study: Daniela Leon is documenting the role of informality in URF systems, Erin Sweeney is interested in how URF systems work across the urban-rural continuum, Grace O’Connor is interested in environmental sustainability of URF systems, and Joy Resor is interested in the issues linked to housing, gender, and food. The student team used mixed-methods techniques including field visits with smallholder farmers, food system stakeholders, and local government officials to learn about smallholder farmers experiences, as well as conducted document analysis of relevant policies including land use plans and master plans.  Field work was conducted in the states of Kerala and Orissa with support of partner organizations including local governments, civil society organizations, and local universities. Results of the field work will inform academic publications as well as a policy report being prepared on behalf of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization by the UB Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab

Written by Jessica Scates

  • Student(s): 
    Erin Sweeney (Urban and Regional Planning), Grace O'Connor (Environmental Design), Daniela Leon (Environmental Design), and Joy Resor (Urban and Regional Planning); Avery Sirwatka (Interdisciplinary Degree Program Social Sciences)
  • Faculty and Staff: 
    Samina Raja (Urban and Regional Planning) and Yeeli Mui (Community for Global Health Equity)
  • Country of Travel: 
  • Dates of Travel: 
    December 2017-January 2018; August 2019


Articles and Reflections


Images from the Plan REFUGE team in India