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Rachel Bezner Kerr

Associate Professor

262 Warren Hall
(607) 255-3213

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.

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
  • 2nd and 3rd best ranked paper (2016) Africa Specialty Group, American Association of Geographers,
  • Early Achievement Award (2016) Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Selected Publications

Journal Publications

Presentations and Activities

  • Food sovereignty, agroecology and resilience: competing or complementary frames? International Rural Sociological Association . August 2016. Toronto.
  • The potential of agroecology and participatory methods for sustainable food transitions: A case study in Malawi. Global Food Security: Transitions to Food Security. June 2016. Paris, France.
  • ‘If we plant trees, the rains will come back’: Gendered knowledge flows, extension models and implications for climate change adaptation in Malawi. Contested Agronomies. February 2016. Sussex, UK.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Seed Sovereignty: Unearthing the cultural and material significance of seed. Food Sovereignty: Theory, Praxis and Power. November 2008. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.