Dr. Prabhu Pingali

“When you think of food security and nutrition, it’s a very complex issue. It can’t be solved by nutritionists alone.”

Cornell University boasts many successful alumni, including the philanthropic Ratan N. Tata. In 2008, Tata gave Cornell a $25 million endowment to establish the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI). This research initiative focuses “on the design and evaluation of innovative interventions linking agriculture, food systems, human nutrition, and poverty in India” (Learn more about TCI here).

Ten days ago, I met with Dr. Pingali, the Founding Director of TCI and an AEM professor at Cornell. Dr. Pingali joined TCI when he “was recruited four years ago, by Cornell, to direct this program”. He attributes his initial interest in TCI to his history of working with food systems. “I worked with the UN, the International Association of Agricultural Economics” (as its president), “and most recently, the Gates Foundation” (as its Deputy Director, Agriculture Development Division).


Through TCI, Dr. Pingali goes to India “three months each year, from around January to March”. Never having been to India, I asked him what its conditions are like concerning food insecurity.

“The situation in India is very different from the situations in remote areas in Africa, for example. In Africa, there may be issues of not enough food, high levels of hunger, and malnutrition. In India, it’s not about having enough food in the system, but not having enough access to food, so not being able to get as much as you would want. Now the other part, is that in India, there is not enough access to different types of foods, especially high nutrient ones.” If this program took place in Africa, “I would be more concerned with creating a food system that has enough food”. India has its staple crops, and the issue isn’t about caloric deficiency.

“The challenge is creating a food system that is more sensitive to nutrient value.”

 Tackling this challenge is not strictly limited to agriculture and nutrition, either. There are many connections to other areas and important issues.

“To begin, when gender empowerment is increased, food security is increased. In some areas of low empowerment, men and boys have more access to food.

Education is a cornerstone of empowerment. It better allows you to process the information you get. I could tell you that clean drinking water is good, but you may not appreciate it if you don’t understand what I’m saying.”

Speaking of clean drinking water, sanitation, of water and of food, is another important issue to address. “We’ve been working on clean water access, and there, you see the difference and direct impact on the people. It releases time for women, because they no longer have to travel to get drinking water. So now, they have more time to spend with their children and to take care of themselves”.

Dr. Pingali continues his list: “Transportation is also important – better roads. Electricity, refrigeration…

When you think of food security and nutrition, it’s a very complex issue. It can’t be solved by nutritionists alone.”

It’s a collaborative effort.

“I always knew that food security was complex, but I didn’t realize how complex it is; I didn’t fully understand its multidisciplinary nature until I started working with TCI.”

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