Joint U of A-India partnership seeks to alleviate poverty in rural India

(Edmonton) An ambitious $4.9-million project, managed in partnership by the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta and India’s MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, will aim to alleviate poverty and malnutrition in three rural communities in India.

Nat Kav, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science and co-principal investigator of the project, says that over the past few decades, farmers in the once diverse agricultural areas have grown primarily cash crops rather than the more traditional and nutritious foods they used to cultivate.

“Many of the people are now deficient in several nutrients because of the lack of diversity in what they eat,” said Kav, who added that iron deficiency and anemia are prevalent problems in the regions.

Cash crops in India, such as rice and cassava, have been valued over more traditional millet and yams, as well as many garden vegetables. However, while it is profitable in the short-run to grow the cash crops, it has had a detrimental effect on people’s health and the land.

“With cassava, over time, these crops start to mine the soils,” explained Brent Swallow, a professor and co-principal investigator in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. “The crop degrades the soils, and the plants develop pest problems because the farmers have been growing just one variety, and it’s easy for pests to come up and attack the plants.”

To address this, the research team—composed of Kav, Swallow, ALES food economist Ellen Goddard and soils scientist Miles Dyck, as well as three ALES graduate students and their counterparts from the MS Swaminathan Foundation—will introduce intercropping, the practice of planting multiple crops in the same area. Plants that require different nutrients or different sunlight conditions can share farmland, increase diversity and be more resilient against pests.

While these practices will be used on farms, not everyone in the community owns land. The team will look at integrating the non-land owners into the food production and processing chain, with a focus on empowering Indian women.

“The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and others have found that, if we can engage women, then the chances of things like this flourishing are much higher,” Kav explained.

Currently, the team is developing surveys and instruments to collect baseline data, which will be used for comparison until mid-2014, when the project is slated to end. Four thousand households will be studied at first, which will then be narrowed down for the on-farm portion of the project.

Professor MS Swaminathan is perhaps best known as the father of the Indian green revolution, which transformed his country by making it self-sufficient in food. He was the first-ever recipient of the World Food Prize, the most prestigious international prize given in food and agriculture. The prize is awarded to those who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.

Swaminathan was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Alberta in October 2010. The project is co-funded by the International Development Research Council and the Canadian International Development Agency.