Monday, December 9th, 2013...7:37 pm

Conversation Series: An Interview With Dr. Alice Pell, Cornell University

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Dr. Alice Pell is a professor of International Agriculture and Animal Science at Cornell University and the former director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

We sat down with Dr. Pell at the conference to ask her a few questions on building resiliency and adaptive capacity in agriculture and the importance of sharing scientific data and knowledge in regards to Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA).

Q: You mentioned in your presentation at the conference that resiliency is the younger sibling of sustainability. Everyone thinks they know what resiliency is, but in fact, it’s highly context specific. You spoke about different indicators of resiliency, from human to biophysical. Could you give more examples?

Dr. Pell: FAO has done some work on household resilience, and those indicators are pretty easy to follow and there are ongoing initiatives. We all end up asking essentially the same questions and we ask them in a unique way that will give us insight into the problem. But if we could agree a bit more on those sets of questions, we could be more effective.

Q: What do you think is preventing more groups from sharing their research?

Dr. Pell: People are worried that their data will get used and they won’t get the credit. But that shouldn’t stop us from sharing. NIH (National Institute of Health) and NSF (National Science Foundation) require that the data you collect is made available. That is a big step forward.

One of the bottlenecks is with meta-data. There are a lot of government agencies collecting datasets but they’re not properly annotated so you spend months cleaning it up. Collecting good metadata isn’t that hard, but you need to do it properly from the beginning. If people were more focused on this issue at the outset, then when an NGO collects the data, the next agency or group to analyze it would be provided with the correct data collection.

Q: Information technology for development (ICT4D) is an increasing topic of interest and there are a number of tools available to researchers and surveyors now. Has anything you’ve seen in the field been particularly effective?   

I’ve seen a lot of tablets being used in the field. Clearly there are a few problems still with programming it and getting it developed cost-effectively, so that it functions well. Three years from now, we’ll probably be a lot better at it than we are now.

Obviously, this is the way to go and it reduces a lot of error in data collection.

Q: From an academic point of view, how do you see the CSA alliance moving forward?

Dr. Pell: We have a very strong project in Indonesia, working with the Bureau of Statistics to do the metadata and use the government data. With things like an Alliance, I would use the example of Indonesia to demonstrate that you need to have trust between different parties to work together, and we went in with good connections. If you had an Alliance, it could really help make the data accessible. Just knowing that the data exists is important.

Q: What might be some of the challenges for climate-smart agriculture?

Dr. Pell: I see technology adoption as being one major issue. In addition, people often forget to do a labor assessment and we forget how much work it is for farmers to adopt some of these new practices. I used to be a farmer and remember when the Extension people would come to my house, and by the end of the meeting, though they had wonderful ideas for me, they wanted 3-4 more hours of my time. If people considered the labor part…farmers in Africa are not lazy folks doing absolutely nothing. A lot of farm work is women’s work and women clearly don’t have the time to do it.

Q: How can we overcome these barriers to adoption of technology?

Dr. Pell: I believe in the participatory approach, assuming that it’s done in the right way. When communities see the “white jeep” drive into their community, and they see a tree logo on the vehicle, they know they need to talk about trees.

Good participatory approaches take time and patience, and there should be good discussion in an ongoing process, built into the whole project.

In terms of scaling up projects, I’m much more interested in a snowball approach to projects. There is a group called Farm Concern working in Kenya and Tanzania, and they organize small groups of farmers, they are doing things at a scale that people can run. Each small group already has existing linkages with 2-3 other groups. If a little group fails, the neighbor group can help bail it out and figure out what the next steps are and they can help themselves. That type of institutional capacity building is really important.

We want leadership at the local level and that’s where it’s most lacking. Doing it with a manageable organization size is way better. Having tiny projects isn’t the answer, but how you scale any project is really important.

I think one of the game changers (that often gets overlooked) is improved literacy. People can get information from a whole bunch of different sources that they couldn’t previously. While mobile technology is important, changes in literacy have seen colossal improvements in some countries, and while there are plenty of people that still can’t read there are enough that can bring ideas in to a community and share knowledge.

Thank you to Dr. Pell for giving us her time and insights. 

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