Jamaican researchers Shaneica Lester and Anne-Teresa Birthwright recently won the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s YES Competition, which will provide support for their project centered around small farmers’ exploration of various climate-adaptive irrigation strategies. Food Tank had the chance to speak with Lester and Birthwright about the motivations behind their work and the results they hope their project will generate.
Food Tank (FT): When did you know you wanted to become involved in agricultural research?
Shaneica Lester and Anne-Teresa Birthwright (SA): We have always been involved in agricultural research throughout our postgraduate journey. We worked on several local and regional projects centered on climate change and food security issues. However, we thought that there was a need for more action-oriented research targeting water challenges faced by small-scale farmers.
FT: Where do you normally look to for ideas?
SA: We identify the gaps, bottlenecks, and challenges in our society, particularly those which affect marginalized and vulnerable groups. Ideas emerge from there of how our knowledge and skills can be utilized in understanding and addressing these issues. As geographers, we also have a vested interest in finding innovative ways of improving sustainability for all.
FT: What inspired the idea for this project?
SA: From farmers, we learned that climate change made it more difficult to efficiently irrigate crops, which affected farmers’ productivity and willingness to continue in agriculture. It was also a deterrent to prospective farmers, especially youth. We thought that initiatives which involved the sourcing and implementation of various irrigation technologies might not be as far reaching as building farmers adaptation capacity through practice and self-perfection. Therefore, we believed integrating local traditional knowledge with technical and scientific know-how would be a more sustainable way of increasing adaptive capacity and productivity.
FT: Why did you decide to do participatory and action-based research?
SA: We wanted to avoid a top-down approach and instead encourage self-empowerment within rural communities. A participatory approach allows farmers to be a part of their own solution by contributing their knowledge and expertise, as well as their perception and understanding of climate change. Action-oriented research allows us to focus on behaviors and practice, which are of major significance in building and sustaining local resilience.
FT: What do you hope the outcomes of the research will be?
SA: We hope that the farmers will start implementing the various methods they learn from the units of the irrigation knowledge transfer curriculum. We look forward to seeing more climate water conservation strategies, soil water management practice, and a greater understanding of plant-water interactions. From the effective use of these strategies, we expect that farmers will see an improvement in their crop health and yields. In successfully executing this project we hope to replicate the Knowledge Transfer Curriculum (KTC) in other agriculturally important communities.
FT: Who has been helpful in making this idea a reality?
SA: Moral support and encouragement from friends, family, and our mentors Dr. Robert Kinlocke (The University of the West Indies, Mona) and Dr. Kevon Rhiney (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) were instrumental for us pursuing this idea. But most importantly, the Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition Young Earth Solutions (BCFNYES) research competition made this idea a reality by investing in our project. The Barilla Center sees the value young researchers can contribute to the sustainability and health of our food systems.
FT: Which other YES Competition projects did you find fascinating?
SA: All of the other finalists had extremely interesting projects. They were captivating and innovative. We are sure the judges had difficulty in selecting a winner because the competition highlighted the substance of young researchers around the world and the impact they can make. We were very impressed.
FT: What will your next steps be once your project is finished?
SA: Upon completing the project we will also be at the end of our PhD journey. We look forward to becoming more involved in community development and issues of national interest. Additionally, we intend to explore how the irrigation knowledge transfer curriculum might be beneficial to other regions. We also look forward to working alongside the Barilla Foundation as alumni on issues of food, nutrition, and environment.