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.
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. 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 addressing ways to develop a sustainable food system. I use principles from participatory action research and integrate local knowledge and perspectives into my research. In my work I pay attention to different scales of a problem, as well as the historical roots that shape contemporary realities, drawing on political ecology theory. I also study discursive framings of food issues, using post-structural and feminist theory for this approach. Concepts drawn from agroecology, public health and international nutrition have also been important in my research. A major theme of my work is a deeper understanding of the historical, political, economic and social dimensions of agricultural practices and policies in southern Africa.My long-term collaborative research project has shown evidence-based improvement in nutrition, food security and soil management in Malawi.
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 conduct related community work or integrate the findings into policy outcomes; 3) to share my research with the broader North American 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 twice a year and help to organize and facilitate workshops with smallholder farmers and hospital staff regarding ongoing research findings, relevant international development topics and at times capacity-building, for example, in research methods. I use the ‘transformational’ approach to educational materials, rather than an ‘information transmission’ model – that is, I assume that it is not a one-way direction of ‘spreading’ information, but rather, I share, learn from, and adapt information based on the specific experience of those affected by the information. Part of my ongoing research project in Malawi involves developing agricultural and nutrition education approaches that take into account my research findings on social dynamics. I also maintain a public website for our non-governmental organization in Malawi, and participate in any media opportunities related to my work when possible.
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.
Awards and Honors
- Julian M. Szeicz Award for Early Career Achievement 2012 () Canadian Association of Geographers
- International Faculty Fellow (2018) Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Cornell University
- Powell, B., Bezner Kerr, R., Young, S. L., & Johns, T. (2015). The determinants of dietary diversity and nutrition: ethnonutrition knowledge of local people in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania. Journal of Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine.
- Hwang, T., Ndolo, V. U., Katundu, M., Nyirenda, B., Bezner Kerr, R., Arntfield, S., & Beta, T. (2015). Provitamin A potential of landrace orange maize variety (Zea mays L.) grown in different geographical locations of central Malawi. Food Chemistry. 196:1315-1324.
- Nyantakyi-Frimpong, H., & Bezner Kerr, R. (2015). The relative importance of climate change in the context of multiple stressors in semi-arid Ghana. Global Environmental Change. 32:40-56.
- Bezner Kerr, R., & Nyantakyi-Frimpong, H. (2014). A political ecology of high-input agriculture in northern Ghana. African Geographical Review.
- Bezner Kerr, R. (2014). Lost and Found Crops: Agrobiodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge, and a Feminist Political Ecology of Sorghum and Finger Millet in Northern Malawi. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 104:577-593.
- Snapp, S. S., Bezner Kerr, R., Smith, A., Ollenburger, M., Mhango, W., Shumba, L., Gondwe, T., & Kanyama-Phiri, G. Y. (2014). Modeling and participatory, farmer-led approaches to food security in a changing world: a case study from Malawi. Science et Changements Planetaires - Secheresse. 24:350-358.
- Bezner Kerr, R. (2012). Lessons from the old Green Revolution for the new: Social, environmental and nutritional issues for agricultural change in Africa. Progress in Development Studies. 12:213-229.
- Snapp, S. S., Blackie, M. J., Gilbert, R. A., Bezner Kerr, R., & Kanyama-Phiri, G. (2010). Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 107:20840-20845.
- Bezner Kerr, R., Berti, P. R., & Shumba, L. (2010). Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi. Public Health Nutrition. 14:1466-1472.
- Bezner Kerr, R. (2010). Groundnuts as an ‘Economic Crop’ or ‘wife of the home’ in Northern Nyasaland. Journal of Historical Geography. 36:76-89.
Presentations and Activities
- Agroecology, social equity and food security: learning from participatory research in Malawi. CAWR Seminars, Coventry, UK. May 2015. Center for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University. Coventry, UK.
- Agroecology and Food Sovereignty in Malawi. Series on Food Security and Food Sovereignty. May 2012. Center for International Studies, University of Chicago. Chicago.
- Shifting Terrain: Political Struggles and Agroecological Approaches to Food Sovereignty in Malawi. Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. February 2012. New York City.
- Strengthening Agriculture Responsiveness to Agriculture and Health. Unleashing Agriculture’s Potential for Improved Health and Nutrition in Malawi . September 2011. Government of Malawi and International Food Policy Research Institute. Lilongwe, Malawi.
- The challenges of promoting agrobiodiversity during a new Green Revolution: Learning from and working with farming communities in northern Malawi. Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting. August 2011. Ecological Society of America. Austin, TX.
- Crop diversity and participatory research to address food security and climate change. Roundtable Discussion . January 2011. Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Malawi and the International Development Research Centre (Canada). Lilongwe, Malawi.
- Agriculture, food and nutrition linkages: a case study of a participatory project in Malawi. Agriculture and Nutrition Working Session. August 2010. McKnight Foundation, Collaborative Crop Research Program and the Gates Foundation. Minneapolis, MN.
- Imaginative geographies of gender and HIV/AIDS: moving beyond neoliberalism. Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. March 2009. Association of American Geographers. Las Vegas, NV.
- Soils, Food and Healthy Communities: Views from Farmers in Northern Malawi. National Farmers Union Annual Meeting. November 2008. National Farmers Union. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
- Seed Sovereignty: Unearthing the cultural and material significance of seed. Food Sovereignty: Theory, Praxis and Power. November 2008. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.