Anne-Teresa Birthwright will be speaking at the Washington, D.C. Food Tank Summit titled, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Young Food Leaders,” which will be held in partnership with The George Washington University, The World Resources Institute, the National Farmers Union, the National FFA Organization, and the National Young Farmers Coalition on February 28, 2018.
Anne-Teresa, a self-taught artist from Jamaica, is pursuing her PhD in development geography at the University of the West Indies, studying the impacts of climate and economic change on Jamaican farmers and coffee production systems.
She has presented at numerous conferences and most recently was awarded the 2016 Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition YES! (Young Earth Solutions) research grant to assist drought-affected small-scale farmers in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Anne about her work, her inspirations, and the future of food and sustainable agriculture.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Anne-Teresa Birthwright (AB): Jamaica’s agricultural sector is mostly made up of small-scale farmers with less than five-acres of land. It’s a high risk livelihood, as the majority of the farms are rain-fed. With the progression and continuous erratic nature of climate change, farmers are being pushed towards new realities. The operations of the food system must also change to ensure food security and sustainability. One of the main reasons for developing the BCFN YES! Project- Surviving the Drought: An Irrigation Curriculum for Jamaica’s Small-Scale Farmers with my colleague, was the need to address farmers’ concerns in one of Jamaica’s primary agricultural areas. This agricultural zone largely contributes to our domestic food production; its fruits, vegetables, and root tubers supply various local markets and the hospitality sector. However, in recent years farmers in this area have been faced with increasing water stress due to changing rainfall patterns and the onset of prolonged dry spells. Recurring droughts in 2010, 2014, and 2015 resulted in decreased yields and an upsurge in the price of local crops. Farmers have somewhat adapted to the dry environment through the use of local traditional knowledge; however, this has not been sufficient in mediating dry conditions or enhancing productivity.
FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?
AB: I believe in the advocacy of research. Research plays an important role in understanding the food system and those who are vulnerable within it. Research also offers an opportunity to bridge the divide between science and policy to engender change. It highlights the problems that need to be addressed or where interventions need to take place. Not only is research responsible for filling knowledge gaps or adding new knowledge to the body of scientific literature, but it also plays an influential role towards societal change. Therefore, research must make an impact. My research has shown that farmers have to safeguard their livelihood against increasingly high capital investments, expensive farm inputs, and meager opportunities to participate at higher levels in the coffee value chain. The research also sheds light on seasonal food insecurity among these small-scale specialty coffee farmers.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
AB: The prevalence of hunger and improper nutrition still remains a difficult task to overcome, as disparities remain in a large percentage of the world’s population among those who are considered obese versus those who are deprived of food. These issues have been further compounded by both internal and external socio-economic, political, and environmental stressors.
FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?
AB: I’m excited about the innovations that are combining hard and soft adaptation options within the agricultural sector. Practical discovery based group learning sessions are employed through the Farmer Field School methodology, increasing the adoption rate of new and improved practices. In the knowledge transfer process, skills and techniques are discovered and created. Through education, information, and other capacity building approaches, farmers can become experts in identifying their climate risks, estimate the prospective impact of specific climate hazards, and make the necessary adjustments to reduce their potential losses. The project has garnered interest from the island’s agricultural state agency and other non-government organizations to implement these techniques and practices and extend its reach to farmers in other regions in Jamaica. It’s therefore important to acknowledge that all innovations must have a plan for its sustainability.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
AB: There needs to be more awareness about the significance of responsible food consumption. It is critical that every consumer educates themselves on the importance of reducing food waste, understanding the environmental footprint of food, and adopting increasingly nutritious diets. Changing daily activities such as saving food for later or reducing portion sizes at restaurants can also make a big difference.
FT: What is the best opportunity for young or aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to get a foothold in America agricultural future?
AB: Using Jamaica as a reference point, I think youth have the knowledge, technology, and drive to transform the agricultural sector. In using these resources, there has been a growing interest in expanding the value chain throughout the sector in the island and challenging the conventional production of traditional crops with new thinking and approaches to food.
FT: How can we best stimulate young people’s curiosity about food and agriculture and encourage their participation in building healthier food systems?
AB: To stimulate young people’s curiosity about food and agriculture more investments in early education need to be made. For example, in Jamaica we have 4H clubs in elementary schools, where children as young as eight years old learn about the benefits of farming, the important role farmers play towards securing the nation’s food, and the sustainable coexistence of farming within the broader environmental system. They can also participate in school garden programs, providing a hands-on approach to learning about the food system and topics such as reducing food waste, composting, and soil health. Additionally, youth must have easier access to land so we must tailor new policies that provide support services and financial resources to do so. Youth must also have their voices heard during the policy-making process.