Tata-Cornell Initiative observes first year of research

Prabhu Pingali
Per Pinstrup-Andersen

Celebrating its first full year of research projects in India, the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (TCi) briefed faculty and students Dec. 5 on drinking-water system projects, studies on iron nutrition for women, agricultural data collection and a food fortification study.

Agriculture and nutrition are top political topics in India, explains Prabhu Pingali, director of TCi and a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. The initiative, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), provides financial support for critical field research, as India faces a population burgeoning to 1.6 billion by 2050, surpassing China’s projected population of 1.3 billion at that time.

The initiative features eight Cornell doctoral students, and the program will have 16 in the near future, said Pingali. “This program runs on the power of students,” he said, explaining that they get opportunities to conduct on-the-ground research. “Field work is a crucial part of what we think this program is all about.”

In her research presentation, Cornell doctoral candidate Soumya Gupta explained how caretaker women on small Indian farms tend to have micronutrient deficiencies and often suffer from anemia. She spent a year collecting data that will inform solutions.

Monroe Weber-Shirk, director of Cornell’s AguaClara program in the College of Engineering, described the pilot partnership between TCi and AguaClara in the Jharkand villages of Gufu and Ronhe. For Indian villagers, the AguaClara filtration system provides reliable operator training and potable water, safe for drinking and cooking.

Summer interns Alexander King ’15, Christian DiRado-Owens ’15, Andrew Pike ’15 and graduate student Katy Merckel provided updates on their agricultural projects. King conducted food fortification research in Mumbai. DiRado-Owens, Pike and Merckel conducted nutritional data collection in Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Maharashtra.

Conducting a spatial analysis using a geographic information system, graduate student Hilary Byerly depicted agricultural maps of crops planted across India, showing changes from decade to decade.

TCi, which aims to solve problems of poverty, malnutrition and rural development in India, is funded by the Tata Trust. Ratan Tata ’59, B.Arch. ’62 is chairman emeritus of Tata Sons.

Summing up the importance of this new effort, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, professor emeritus in nutritional sciences and chair of the TCi board, said: “Efforts to make the food system more nutritionally sensitive … is really a hot topic these days. … There are a lot of international initiatives to learn how the food system could be made more nutrition-friendly, but they are all mostly conceptual. Most of the writing is done at 30,000 feet – whether done in an actual airplane or conceptually [at 30,000 feet],” he quipped.

Pinstrup-Andersen noted that empirical evidence based on field-level data is needed. “We need this kind of research to help policy makers make the right decisions.”

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Melissa Osgood