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March 20, 2019

Chaun Liao talking with people around a map on the groundThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Chuan Liao, assistant professor in the School of Sustainability.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: My PhD advisor’s research focuses on Central Asia, and suggested me to work in the Chinese part of Central Asia. I went to the pastoral communities in northern Xinjiang and discovered that they are struggling with livelihoods around livestock production because of environmental degradation and sedentarization-oriented policies, which means they cannot practice large scale seasonal migration anymore. So that’s how I got interested in the food system. Then I was invited to participate in a USAID-supported project about pastoral systems in southern Ethiopia. I got even more involved in food systems when I started looking at land grabbing in southern Ethiopia during my postdoctoral work.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: My research is driven by two of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 15: Life on Land. In the dry lands, which are mostly used for livestock production, we’re looking at how to improve food security and rangeland health.

One tool that we generated is a pastoral migration atlas. We’ve created maps based on our GPS-tracking data on cow movement, and presented those maps back to the communities, who can then use them to protect their land tenure and prevent future land grabbing. Because otherwise the government can say, "Oh you don’t use this land, you don’t have proof to show that you’re using this land," so we’re hoping that these maps can be used to protect land tenure in this part of southern Ethiopia.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: I’m interested in agriculture intensification, because it’s being promoted as a sort of panacea to address the challenge of feeding a growing population, and to increase land conservation -- you need to intensify agriculture on existing croplands to increase food production efficiency.

But in the drylands is this really feasible, and if so, how? And how do you balance the traditional pastoral use of the drylands for livestock herding with agricultural intensification? That’s something I’ve been thinking about and I’m interested in exploring some solutions to address that.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: As long as it’s prepared in a delicious way, I don’t really have a preference. But recently, I’ve been enjoying duck.