Dr. Rachel Bezner Kerr
Dr. Rachel Bezner Kerr
My research interests converge on the broad themes of agroecology, food security, health, nutrition and social inequalities, with a primary focus in southern Africa. There are three major areas of my work, namely 1) agroecology, food security and social processes in rural Africa; 2) social relations linked to health and nutritional outcomes and 3) local knowledge and climate change adaptation. My long-term collaborative research project in Malawi with the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities organization (SFHC) is the hallmark of my work on sustainable food and diets. 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 use a participatory research model – farmers do their own experiments, and teach other farmers about their findings, and we take seriously the social and cultural milieu within which they live, adjusting our educational approaches and strategies accordingly. Another emerging theme in my research is related to local knowledge and climate change adaptation. In 2009 I began new interdisciplinary research on climate change adaptation, in both central and northern Malawi. This innovative participatory research project involves 400 farmers conducting longitudinal experiments on climate change adaptations, alongside surveys, soil health and crop diversity studies and in-depth interviews on climate change perceptions. My 2014 paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers draws from this research,exploring the historical and contemporary explanations for the loss of indigenous grains in northern Malawi.
My general approach to food systems has been holistic, interdisciplinary and collaborative, drawing from both the natural and social sciences. I examine the social relations and processes that interact with environmental, political and economic processes within food systems. I often collaborate with researchers in different disciplines, including 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 to develop a sustainable food system. I take seriously the idea that there are multiple ways of knowing, and use principles from participatory action research to integrate local knowledge and perspectives into my research. My future research plans will involve examining in greater depth the potential for using agroecology and farmer-led research to improve food security and nutrition in Africa. My plans are in three key areas: 1) scaling out agroecological methods with attention to gender and class divisions, labor implications and child nutrition in Malawi and Tanzania; 2) participatory research on climate change adaptation and agrobiodiversity; 3) exploring agricultural alternatives for food security in Africa at a broader scale.