Cornell University

“Agroecological approaches to sustainable food systems: Evidence from Malawi” - Rachel Bezner Kerr

Thursday, September 12, 2019 at 12:20pm

Emerson Hall, 135

Rachel Bezner Kerr
Professor, Department of Developement Sociology


My research interests converge on the broad themes of sustainable agriculture, food security, health, nutrition and social inequalities, with a primary focus in southern Africa.

Research Focus

I have four major areas of research: 1) historical, political and social roots of the food system in northern Malawi; 2) sustainable agriculture, food security and social processes in rural Africa; 3) social relations linked to health and nutritional outcomes and 4) local knowledge and climate change adaptation. My general approach to food systems has been holistic, interdisciplinary and collaborative, drawing from both the natural and social sciences, including collaborations with those working in agricultural and nutritional science, public health and ecology. Most of my research is also applied, community-based and participatory, involving local organizations and community members addressing ways to develop a sustainable food system. In my work, I pay attention to different scales of a problem, as well as the historical roots that shape contemporary realities. I also study discursive framings of food issues, using post-structural and feminist theory as well as political ecology to explore agricultural practices and policies in southern Africa. Concepts drawn from agroecology, public health and international nutrition have also been important in my research. My long-term collaborative research project has shown evidence-based improvement in nutrition, food security and soil management from agro-ecological practices in Malawi and Tanzania.

Outreach and Extension Focus

I have three major goals for my extension and outreach work: 1) to share, learn from and enhance information for those groups most immediately affected by my research findings (e.g. rural farming families in northern Malawi); 2) to disseminate my findings to government agencies and non-governmental organizations who might integrate the findings into policy outcomes; 3) to share my research with the broader public, in order to increase knowledge and understanding of food and agricultural issues and to foster change in our food system in North America. In order to meet these three goals, I participate in the publication of relevant materials (e.g. pamphlets, handouts), take part in as many opportunities for public speaking events as possible, develop documents that are relevant and timely for policy-makers, and meet with relevant organizations and government officials where possible. I also travel to Malawi at least once a year and help to organize and facilitate workshops with smallholder farmers and civil society groups regarding ongoing research findings, relevant international development topics and at times capacity-building, for example, in research methods. Instead of spreading information in one direction, I share, learn from, and adapt information based on the specific experience of those affected by the information. I also maintain a public website for my long-term partner in Malawi, a farmer-led non-profit organization, and participate in any media opportunities related to my work when possible.

Teaching Focus

My overall goal is to foster critical thinking and a passion for learning that goes beyond the classroom and sparks a lifetime of concern and interest in the world. My teaching philosophy fosters critical thinking, encourages active student participation, has high expectations of students, and teaches material in creative and interesting ways. I believe that students bring valuable perspectives to the material, and the work of teaching must reflect the positive tension between established ideas, and new ways of critiquing received wisdom. I think that University-level teaching is both a privilege and a significant responsibility, involving mentoring and supporting students as they develop skills for future employment, learning and life in the broader global community.


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Crop and Soil Sciences


CALScomm, sips, SCS




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Contact Name

Tara Reed

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Rachel Bezner Kerr

Speaker Affiliation

Cornell University

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