Healthy soil, healthy communities

Rachel Bezner Kerr tackles malnutrition in Africa

By Linda Copman, Global Cornell


Rachel Bezner Kerr (right) with collaborators Lizzie Shumba and Esther Lupafya, from the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities organization in Malawi. Photo by Carmen Bezner Kerr

Agriculture in Africa during the past decade has been dominated by a particular vision – one characterized by fields of monocultures produced using petroleum-based fertilizer and hybrid seed, accompanied by land acquisition by foreign companies to support exports.

Rachel Bezner Kerr promotes an alternative vision of a more equitable and sustainable food system.

“My research focuses on ways to build the soil, grow healthy food, and feed people in ways that build more equitable communities,” explained Bezner Kerr, who was recently named an Einaudi Center International Faculty Fellow. “One of the most overlooked parts of a sustainable diet is equality – it’s no good having a healthy diet if only a handful of people get to eat it.”

Bezner Kerr collaborates with colleagues across the disciplines of agriculture, nutritional science, public health, and ecology. Most of her work is community-based and participatory, meaning that she works closely with local organizations and community members to develop sustainable food systems.

The majority of Bezner Kerr’s research is based in Sub-Saharan Africa, primarily in Malawi and Tanzania, where high levels of child and maternal malnutrition accompany high levels of poverty, a reliance on a few foods, seed and fertilizer imports, degraded soils, poor feeding practices, and small-scale farms with limited options to initiate change. In Malawi, child stunting rates are almost 50 percent, and women have primary responsibility to produce food and care for children.

Bezner Kerr is involved in a long-term collaborative research project in Malawi in partnership with the nonprofit Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC). She is now scaling up this work as part of the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology project, in collaboration with the University of Malawi and several Canadian universities.

The project relies upon a participatory research model – farmers conduct their own experiments and teach other farmers about their findings. Bezner Kerr and her partners have also developed community educational methods, such as ‘recipe days’ that draw upon the wisdom of local residents.

“We take seriously the social and cultural milieu within which people live, adjusting our educational approaches and strategies accordingly,” said Bezner Kerr. 


Bezner Kerr conducting interviews in Malawi in 2014. Photo by Carmen Bezner Kerr

Addressing gender inequality and unhealthy child feeding practices are two important aspects of Bezner Kerr’s work. Her research has shown that participating households have healthier children when compared to neighboring families who are not participating.

“My research in Malawi has received considerable international attention,” Bezner Kerr said. “We have shown improvements in child nutrition, food security, and soil management for smallholder farming families who struggle with food insecurity, degraded lands, and child malnutrition. We also have evidence of greater shared household decision-making and labor, and my current research is exploring these dimensions in greater depth,” she said.

Bezner Kerr helped to create a farmer-led research and training center in Malawi. This center provides a place where farmer researchers can test and showcase different farming and food processing methods, conduct research in collaboration with scientists and students, and train other farmers.

Bezner Kerr is also developing a farmer-led curriculum that integrates agroecology, climate change, nutrition, and social equity. The new curriculum will be pilot tested in Malawi and in Tanzania.

At Cornell, Bezner Kerr has been working with her colleagues in nutrition, development sociology, and plant science to develop a Community Food Systems minor that will launch in fall 2016. The minor will provide students with the opportunity to participate in a two-month practicum with an organization that works to promote food justice and/or sustainable agriculture.

“Cornell students need to understand how they are connected to other parts of the world and how their actions (or inactions) at multiple scales affect other people,” said Bezner Kerr. “International education is crucial to Cornell, or to any university that wants to foster true scholarship and hope for our shared future.”

Opportunities like the International Faculty Fellowship are intended to encourage the international engagement of Cornell faculty like Rachel Bezner Kerr. She will receive an IFF research stipend, which she will use to pursue two new international partnerships in France and in Norway. She may also use her stipend to expand her work to Ghana.

During her tenure as an International Faculty Fellow, Bezner Kerr will also have the opportunity to share her research with the Cornell community and to host a workshop.

“I have not determined the precise nature of the workshop, but it will likely focus on the linkages between agroecology, food sovereignty/justice and health/nutrition and bring together scholars and practitioners from around the world,” she said.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Mann Library will host a photo display of Bezner Kerr’s work in March-April 2016. Visit https://mannlib.cornell.edu/news-events/events/exhibits for more details.