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July 26, 2019

Rimjhim Aggarwal talking with peopleThe 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 Rimjhim Aggarwal, associate professor in the School of Sustainability.

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

Answer: Norman Borlog, the “Father of the Green Revolution,” came to visit India after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts in addressing world hunger. As a young kid, I remember thinking of him as a God-like figure who had saved India from hunger and starvation, and he became my childhood role model. But then as I grew up and studied more, I discovered several of the ecological and social impacts that the Green Revolution technology had beyond increasing food production — that it had led to ecological destruction and increased social inequities.

It was an eye opener for me in thinking about sustainable food systems. I realized that we need to think carefully about how we intervene in the system, and that we need to reflect deeply on the repercussions of what we’re doing. What are the trade-offs and long-term implications of these actions? What I appreciate from that experience, and that I still draw on is that we need to bring in alternative perspectives and always be critical of our own work.

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

A: What is fascinating to me is thinking about not just the food system in isolation, but how it is interconnected with other systems - such as energy and water systems . Food, energy, and water are basic requirements for human survival.

These are all complex systems by themselves, but to add to this complexity, there are all these interconnections and feedbacks among them. In this project, funded by NSF’s Innovations in Food-Energy-Water Systems (INFEWS) Nexus research area, we’re looking at how decisions made in one system affect the other systems.

To give some context to why this is important, in 2008 there was a global food crisis and food prices doubled or tripled in parts of the world. That led to political riots which, in some cases, drove changes in political regimes. It prioritized food on the global agenda in a way that it hadn’t been in decades.

Food prices are highly related to oil prices; and at that time increase in oil prices led to a sharp rise in food prices directly, and through, increase in acreage devoted to biofuel crops, which reduced the agricultural acreage dedicated to food crops. Drought in some major food producing regions of the world further reduced food supply, and created the perfect storm. This example shows how risks across these sectors in strongly correlated, and thus to understand the vulnerability of the food system we also have to look at the energy system and the water system.

In this project we are conducting stakeholder engagement workshops here in the Phoenix area to see if they think this nexus is important in their work. It was very revealing for us because in academic circles we talk a lot about this nexus, but in talking to practitioners we learned that they are still bound in terms of siloed thinking within their respective sector. They have very limited collaboration with other sectors.

In our research we are engaging with decision makers in these sectors and people on the ground, and trying to understand their priorities, and what kind of information would be most useful for them. We are also collecting data on how these systems interact under different scenarios and then trying to create visualizations that can unravel the underlying complexity. The computer scientists in our team are helping us with the use of various visual techniques to communicate information in simple and effective ways. We want to help decision makers understand how the different policy and other levers they have, impact the other systems? And how can they collaborate to make the outcomes better?

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

A: Ultimately, systems are composed of people whose actions and behaviors determines what happen. What I’m most excited about is that the change is coming through the cohorts of students entering our programs today. It’s what gives me optimism.

The cohort is very different from the way I saw things when I entered college. When I was a student, no one cared very much about food systems. It seemed like everything had been solved in the food system. But this generation is very engaged, very concerned, and very much willing to be on the action front of food systems. We were most concerned about job security , but we see a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in this new generation. And I see these coming cohorts of students as being those agents of change, and that’s why the role of the university is so important.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: It’s not just the food item per se, it’s more about the experience. The people you enjoy that item with, how it is cooked, how it is served. So in that respect I would say my favorite is Indian curry. I am a vegetarian, so I’m thinking of vegetable and lentil curries with a whole mix of spices. One curry, called saag, is made with mustard greens and spinach. Those are typically foods that American children dread, but growing up in India that was my favorite dish. It takes a long time to make, but I have great memories of cooking it with my mom and eating it outside in the sun during winter days with the whole family.