We Must Help Farmers Prepare for a Transformed Climate. This Scientist is Showing Us How.
Before she started thinking about the future of food, climate scientist Sonali McDermid, PhD, studied the ancient past. Specifically, the Pleistocene era, a period 3 million years ago when warming global temperatures changed the Earth’s climate. For McDermid, it was impossible not to draw comparisons to the present — and think about the billions of people who would be affected by such a shift today.
Meanwhile, she was also thinking about food: where it comes from, who gets to eat it, and what will happen to it as the climate changes. She fused these interests over time, and now she’s an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, where she studies the role of agriculture in climate change. Much of her work is aimed at helping small farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa prepare for a much warmer future.
Food justice, for McDermid, is a critical aspect of this research, an aspect that stemmed from her work in India, where her family is from. “When you look at how much we’re producing and, in some ways, how food-rich India is, and the fact that there are so many people who don’t have access all the time, the injustice behind that is just staggering,” she tells Future Human. “And you trace it back and it’s very structural.”
As the climate continues to change, global food insecurity is expected to increase. McDermid talked with Future Human about how she’s helping small farmers adapt to the changes they’re experiencing, the importance of empowering people at the local level, the challenges farmers everywhere face from governments and multinational corporations, and how everyone can do their part in dismantling food injustice amid the climate crisis, one plate at a time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yasmin Tayag: Why are so many people unable to eat, and how does your work address it?
Sonali McDermid, PhD: [People] are having a hard time meeting food needs throughout the year just because of structural conditions. So, it’s the economics, political divisions, racial divisions. Climate change is likely going to exacerbate some of those inequities. My work is looking at how climate change will impact agriculture. On the flip side of things, the other half of my work focuses on the impact of agriculture on the environment. We know agriculture has a really big footprint, it contributes significantly to climate change, but it also drives biodiversity loss. It also drives copious amounts of water use, and all of that is inequitably distributed as well.
Your work is about empowering farming communities to adapt to climate change. What are you telling them, and how are they already preparing?
For the past decade or so, I worked with a project called AgMIP, which is the Agricultural Model Intercomparison Project. One of the key things I liked about this project was that it was funded by an agency that’s interested in development. Stakeholder engagement has to be a really important component of this — involving decision-makers from the national level, the federal level, but even down to the municipal and community levels. People who make decisions about water, people who make decisions about inputs for agriculture, people who make decisions about labor, people who are interested in gender equity, right? All of this can be included in your stakeholder community.
That was important because the local communities and stakeholders can really drive what adaptation options are available to communities. And sometimes even those visions are competing. But it’s important that those local visions inform the kind of work we do.
The other thing I really liked about this project is that the people who actually implemented it and did much of the intellectual work—working it together—were scientists who resided in the countries that we worked in. And several of them were really strong female scientists.
Why was it important to have local scientists doing the work?
Sometimes you can do this helicopter science, where you basically have a bunch of Western scientists fly in, do all of the work, tell people how to adapt to climate change, and leave without really understanding the context. That was always something I was afraid of in getting involved in this work. But we had principal investigators—the people who were responsible for this work—being from the countries themselves, and we were just there as a supporting element. In some cases, those scientists talked to farmers on the ground about what they’re typically doing and asked if they would be willing to think about this other adaptation option. It’s a much more natural conversation than something that would come from us.
The other thing that was really interesting — because we tend to have this not so great, problematic, canonical idea of what a farmer in some of these areas looks like — you look here at small-scale farmers, and they’re very different. There’s a lot of variability across farmers. We try to capture and honor that and try to understand that no community is a monolith. People will decide to take adaptation options based upon their own personal household conditions.
What other obstacles are these farmers facing on top of climate change?
Oh, gosh, so many things. Some are more socioeconomic and political. A lot of farmers in the areas where we’re working are very sensitive to changes in global markets and economic prices, which can trickle down into medium- to small-scale markets and can affect farmers who maybe don’t have the economies of scale to be producing as much as the biggest farms in the world.
Small-scale farmers don’t have a lot of security or safety nets around them—crop insurance, for example. By the way, this is not just something that happens abroad: This happens right around me and in the Hudson Valley. That really puts farmers and food producers at risk. Climate can compound that by the errant drought or flood or that sort of thing.
[We need to be] able to give farmers agency, autonomy, to experiment and try new things and not feel beholden to markets that don’t necessarily represent them or aren’t tailored to their needs.
A lot of these are issues we’re seeing with the recent farmers’ protests in India.
So much of that was sort of this tension between, well, who is it that controls the markets? Is it the federal government? Or is it these multinationals that have this reach and can really dominate some of these markets — it’s something that, in the West, we really idolize and have enabled. At the end of the day, neither actually works out the way that you hoped it would. Farmers are shoved between a rock and a hard place, between the balance of these two really big forces. In some places, those two forces can really mesh if you’ve got a lot of lobbying power, for example, as we see here.
Right now, farmers need options. They need the autonomy and agency to select from a menu of options to do several things. One, make themselves more insulated to climate change and to just the climate — to variability, to extreme events. And two, farm in a way that maintains the health of the landscape. When you’re pushed into a situation where you have to think in the short term—putting food on the table, educating your kids—that’s doing a lot of other things. It can be really difficult to make some of the longer-term environmentally beneficial decisions that many farmers might want to make but feel a bit hamstrung and may not have the option to do so.
And if you start to go into the space of gender equity, all of these issues are exacerbated for female farmers. Particularly in areas that, well, it’s immense. Almost all areas. In several of these areas, women do a lot of the agricultural work, and so making sure they have the information required to make the best crop decisions from season to season, but also climate information and climate services. Trying to understand climate projections and how those might affect their viability as female farmers. Access to that information may not always be equitable.
So, looking through that lens also matters. There are many, many more when you start to think, “What is agriculture for?” Right away, you think “food to eat,” but so much of it isn’t. It’s corporate; it’s about bottom lines; it’s about commodities. Moving toward the definition of agriculture for food security could help to go a step in the right direction, and it’s not there yet.
To most people, the idea that agriculture is not about food security might be surprising.
I mean, that’s the first thing you think of when you look at a farm, right? But when looking at what is actually being produced and who’s actually eating it, and then looking at the number of food-insecure people in the world against the figure of like, well, “we have enough calories for everybody,” you really have to start questioning: What is it for if it’s not feeding everybody?
What can people like me, who are not researchers or academics, do to help address these issues?
Just by hosting this whole experience — Future Human — I think that’s huge. That’s arguably more impactful than anything I do, which gets published in these obscure journals nobody ever reads.
Somebody [said] it’s a really interesting American tendency or Western tendency to ask, “What can I do as an individual?” When, really, to solve some of these problems, the biggest thing we can do as individuals is act less individually and more collectively. I think that means getting engaged with these burgeoning environmental movements, food justice movements. It might not necessarily be going to a protest, but it could be. It could be just attending an informational session where there are speakers or panel discussions — raising awareness is really important. No matter where you are, if you’re in a city, and now, increasingly, in rural areas, there is likely a food justice organization working near you.
If you’re in New York or any major U.S. city, there are multiple food justice organizations. Go to one of their meetings, and see how you can put your money, if you have it—even a couple dollars—toward that.
The more collectively we act, the more we see results. Look at this wave of activity around Black Lives Matter, for example. It might be slow, it might not be exactly what we need just yet, and we definitely need more. But I don’t know that the current administration would be taking some of the positions that they are right now if it weren’t for that kind of movement.
How should we be thinking about changing the way we eat?
The other thing that’s great about food, in particular, is that it’s a decision you can make three times a day—or more than that, if you’re so inclined. Not everybody has the means to be making those decisions perfectly. One thing we should all internalize and remind ourselves of is that food tends to be very personal and very individualized, and people feel very strongly about it. It can be very easy to feel inadequate about some of your decisions. What’s important to remember with food is that while you are making decisions about what you eat, what’s hidden is that you’re not always fully in charge of that decision.
If you’re living in an area where fresh fruits aren’t available all the time, you don’t really have much of a decision that you can make. That’s something we need to sort out. Unfortunately, I don’t have a full answer for that. But for most of us, it’s being mindful about what’s being eaten — I don’t necessarily mean that from any kind of spiritual perspective — I just mean thinking about what you’re eating. Even if it’s not necessarily in line with what we consider to be a more sustainable diet. Raising a bit of awareness, thinking about those decisions that you make, is the first step toward making better decisions, when and if you can. And for those of us who can’t, it’s important that by thinking about what you’re eating, you wonder what other people are eating. And that puts you in a position to be a better advocate for food justice.