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March 26, 2019

Valerie MuellerThe 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 Valerie Mueller, assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

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

Answer: I’m a development economist, and I also do environmental work. The reason I went into development was to find solutions to get people out of poverty. I knew I wanted to look at how to improve agricultural productivity, because agriculture is how a lot of people in other countries make their money.

I got interested in development because I am the type of person that tries to help people, and I got interested in economics because I really like math. So it’s great to be able to use these mathematical tools to answer interesting questions about what sorts of policies do we need to lift people out of poverty.

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

A: I’m doing some experimental work in Mozambique right now, trying to figure out how to improve existing extension systems so that farmers are getting information and getting the know-how to improve their agricultural practices. And since starting that, we’ve been trying to figure out what needs to happen to get farmers to invest in capital inputs like tractors and fertilizers.

One example is looking at water-user associations, which are groups of farmers that organize themselves for irrigation schemes. These groups already figure out how much water each user gets and when to turn on the pump. They have fees that they can use to finance the electricity or other things that you need to maintain the irrigation system.

So we’re looking at leveraging these groups into saving for beneficial capital inputs for the collective. A tractor might be a really big outlay for an individual, but if everyone in the water user group saves a bit, then the group as a whole can buy a tractor.

The next question is how can we use financial literacy interventions to encourage the individuals within these associations to save towards something. Even with the best financial literacy program, most people won’t have enough money to purchase a lot of these capital inputs.

So then we think about other instruments that can encourage people to save, and show them that they can achieve something from saving. We’re looking at matching grants where if the association can save 20 percent of the cost of something, the other 80 percent will be matched by the World Bank or the Government of Mozambique. A lot of the things farmers are trying to get are things like animal traction kits, and tractors and harvesters, and all these things that we have in a modern agricultural system.

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

A: Something that isn’t really an innovation, but that I’m interested in, is migration. Specifically internal migration, and what makes people in rural households move to urban areas, or move to other rural areas. How will these migration patterns shift diets? What types of products, and abundance of different types of products, need to come from certain countries?

If certain countries are getting more urbanized, then the farmers in those countries need to produce enough food to accommodate that growing urban population. That requires a totally different type of policy intervention than a country that is still very rural and is interested in exporting their agricultural products.

Those countries need to identify the goods that are highly demanded in an export market and determine whether or not they have the conditions produce those goods. There are changes in migration and in market composition, and it becomes a question of whether farmers in developing countries are responding to their growing urban centers or whether they are looking for robust export markets.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: My favorite food is sushi, and depending on the type it can be sustainably harvested. It’s why I couldn’t be a vegetarian for more than two years — I couldn’t handle the vegetarian sushi rolls anymore!