Prabhu Pingali was appointed, in May 2103, as the Founding Director of the University-wide Tata Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) and as a Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. He has joint appointments as a Professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the newly formed Department of Global Development. As Director of TCI, Prabhu has been charged with developing and managing a multidisciplinary action-research program that is focused on the chronic problems of rural poverty and malnutrition and the role of agriculture in alleviating the problems. The program is designed to make a difference to the lives of rural communities through policy advice and extension even while ensuring outstanding academic rigor in its scholastic work.
Under the direction of Prabhu Pingali, TCI has experienced rapid growth since its inception in 2013. TCI’s research team consists of 14 Ph.D. students from six departments across Cornell, as well as four master’s students, three postdoctoral associates, three research associates, and six faculty fellows. (Information on the TCI Research Team is available here.)
Prabhu has brought the food systems approach to the forefront in understanding agricultural development and nutrition. The food systems approach aims to create new opportunities and capabilities for increasing farm production and productivity, reduce malnutrition and improve labor productivity, and facilitate greater structural transformation to reduce inequality. TCI has brought its food systems approach to its work in more than six states in India, impacting over 210 villages and 36,500 households. TCI promotes a more nutrition-sensitive food system in India through 1) agriculture interventions which explicitly incorporate nutrition outcomes (such as diversification from staple grains into more nutritious pulses, vegetables, and livestock products); 2) enabling agriculture policies to promote the availability and affordability of food diversity through research and evidence (such as policy-informing research studies, policy-influencing research products, and national/state level events to engage policymakers); and building leadership in food, nutrition, and agriculture by increasing the capacity of key players (such as NGO partners, corporate social responsibility stakeholders, and researchers).
TCI has an impressive publication record for the past five years, including three books; 23 journal articles, book chapters, and other publications; and 14 policy briefs. Prabhu’s latest book, authored in collaboration with his postdoctoral associates, is, “Transforming Food Systems for a Rising India.” Published by Palgrave McMillan, the book has been exceptionally well received by the academic and development policy communities in India and major donor countries and has had a significant impact on policy discussions on agricultural and food systems contributions to reducing malnutrition in India. The book discusses the processes, policies, institutions, and technologies needed for transforming India’s food systems, arguing in favor of moving away from India’s traditional focus on increasing the production of staple grains, especially wheat and maize, and towards a food system that promotes diversity and nutritional quality. Improved accessibility of more nutritious foods can simultaneously address the chronic and persistent problem of undernutrition, as well as the emerging obesity epidemic.
TCI also made significant contributions to the gender and nutrition literature through three publications based on intensive fieldwork and rigorous empirical analysis. TCI researchers showed a causal link between women’s empowerment and their nutritional status as measured by iron deficiency. They also demonstrated that empowered women tend to enhance their nutritional status (and that of their households) through more judicious market purchases of diverse foods that have higher quality and nutritive values. Finally, TCI provided a field-based critique of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index and guided its application in the Indian context.
TCI is implementing Social and Behavioral Change Communication (SBCC) methods and tools to enhance the community-level awareness of a better food system and technical knowledge for improved nutritional outcomes. Two TCI projects in India assesses how SBCCs increases the demand and consumption of micronutrient-rich vegetables such as orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP) and reduced open-defecation when coupled with toilet construction initiatives. The preliminary findings of the OFSP project show a significant increase in the growing of OFSP in the community through increased awareness and network effects. The high rate of adoption is a result of coupling promotion of the crop, information drives, and demonstrations. TCI’s community-led total sanitation (CLTS) through a behavioral change campaign constructed 600 toilets in 10 villages in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Our results show that behavior change campaigns with access to toilets show a significant increase in toilet use across gender. It also shows a reduction in incidences of diarrhea in households that constructed and used toilets, potentially improving nutrient absorption, especially among women and children.
In India, the postharvest loss is a significant challenge, affecting food availability and quality of household diets. TCI is assessing the nature of food loss and food safety concerns at the household level influenced by storage practices and in the value chain influenced by harvesting and marketing practices. Mycotoxins are among the many factors that lead to postharvest losses in rural food systems. Exposure to mycotoxins can result in different health and nutrition deficits in humans and livestock. TCI is piloting and scaling up improved storage technologies, like hermetic bags, grain storage drums, and moisture meters. Around 820 households in the Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh have received the benefits of these technologies. They have been able to store approximately 55 tons of crop harvest, reducing food loss at the household level significantly.
The loss of fruit and vegetables in supply chains means reduced availability of nutrient-rich foods. TCI’s work aims to understand the nature, stages, and extent of food loss of perishable vegetables along supply chains in India, seeking to aid in the creation of effective reduction interventions to improve food security. Survey data is providing valuable insights into how different actors in the supply chain perceive quantity and quality food loss and manage them. Improving our understanding of how the quantity and quality food loss occurs will help develop food loss prevention strategies that increase the availability of nutritious fruits and vegetables.
The study of aggregation models, particularly farmer producer organizations (FPOs), where smallholder come together to access factor and product markets jointly, is critical for a small farm dominated economy like India. In the past two decades, there has been renewed interest in the promotion of FPOs but only a few success stories have emerged. Low-financing opportunities, weak market linkages, high coordination costs, inadequate managerial expertise, and exclusion of women, among others, are cited as reasons. TCI is committed to the promotion of producer organizations as essential for agricultural development and food security by studying the FPO promotion experience by philanthropic actors, government, and private entities in India and Mexico. The study will allow TCI to assess conditions of success and failure and also determine metrics that can systematically evaluate FPO performance.
TCI has played an important role in enhancing the academic and development practitioner talent pool through the high-quality graduate students and postdoctoral associates that it has supported and mentored. Under Prabhu’s leadership, nine TCI scholars have successfully obtained PhDs or master’s degrees in the past seven years. This year, four Ph.D. candidates and three master’s students from five different departments in three Colleges will earn their degrees.