Dr. Christopher Barrett

What has been the most impactful lesson you’ve learned from traveling?

“The fragility of life.”

The recent election has reminded the United States of how significant power shifts can be. Other countries, particularly ones without stable government systems, can continually suffer from the consequences of power shifts.

Dr. Barrett, Cornell’s College of Business’ Deputy Dean and Dean of Academic Affairs, sat down to speak with me about international food security and its relation to sociopolitical stability.

To begin, Dr. Barrett provided a general overview of how the two are related:

When food becomes more expensive, people get upset. “People take to the streets” and protest, to the point where, in one case, “the Madagascan government was overthrown”, resulting in political instability. Intra and international disputes emerge; issues regarding resource control and confidence in the government amplify. For example, “inputs into producing food, [such as land or genetic material], become more valuable”. Control over these resources intensifies the power struggle.

Power struggles are only one of many factors that contribute to human suffering, and Dr. Barrett’s primary research purpose is to reduce “unnecessary human suffering”.

What does “unnecessary human suffering” mean?

“I have five children. They, like I, are lucky to have been born in the United States”, and to have attended good schools. “Other people who may have been born to the very same circumstances – a middle class family, etc. – , may not be as lucky. Consider the families in Syria. Families may have thought that their children were going to finish school, and look where the country is at today.”

Dr. Barrett continued to list examples: “dying from malaria when mosquito nets cost $5, getting cholera as a result of not having access to clean drinking water – this is preventable human suffering. All are preventable. We just lack the creativity” to do something about it.

The United States isn’t absolved from unnecessary suffering, either. A dichotomy exists within our own country: we face a huge problem of food waste while so many people go hungry. This is evident even at Cornell. “There’s food waste at the top of the hill, and people who could really benefit from the food down the hill.” Think about the overabundance of leftover food after an event. It often goes to waste.

“Some of the guys down at The Jungle could really benefit from the food, especially during this season, as it’s getting colder – they need the extra calories”.

The problem, according to Dr. Barrett, is that “people don’t throw away food when it’s expensive. It’s because food is so cheap that most can afford to be wasteful.” At the same time, this problem cannot be solved by making food expensive, because even bigger problem is then created.

This problem is not without hope, though. Dr. Barrett cited an incident he learned about from one of his daughters; there’s a system in which students can receive a text about leftover food at an event. The food is not wasted because college students “come down like locusts”, he smiled. American’s Second Harvest also goes to local grocery stores in Ithaca to collect food that’s about to be thrown out due to sell-by dates, but may otherwise be healthy and safe for consumption for a few more days.

You must keep in mind, however, that you do not want to be so concerned with reducing food waste that you push on food safety concerns. Dr. Barrett picked up an apple on his desk with a few bruises – he and his wife buy a surplus of apples ahead of time to save trips to the grocery stores during the week. Some of them may go bad and be wasted, but at the same time, spoiled food is a safety concern.

The aforementioned efforts to overcome food security issues all take place specifically within the United States. It is true that many parallels exist between both the US and other countries; there are affluent subpopulations all over the world. Convenience, comfort with wasting cheap food, and a lack of creative solutions are global issues.

On the other hand, “many of these other countries experience a lack of public goods”. Dr. Barrett illustrated the importance of communication and transport infrastructure:

Some areas may be low in food, and they may want to call up a farmer in another area and ask, ‘hey, can you sell some of your food here to us?’, but they don’t have the means to do that.

A lack of communication infrastructure exists even within poor communities in the US – there’s poor cell phone reception just 30 minutes outside of Ithaca. But in other countries, the severity is intensified when you get an aggregate of communities in one area, all without communication for hundreds of miles.

Public goods also include police protection. “A farmer may want to travel to another location to sell his goods”, but he might get robbed. In another country, even if a police system exists, it may or may not even be helpful; the police may only act in response to bribes.

“We take a lot for granted.”

We assume that the police will protect us, that the communication systems work, that there will be food in the grocery stores, that food safety regulations are actually met, that the roads will be functional.

“That’s why I find it so important for young people to travel”. By traveling, you acknowledge contrasts. Experiencing how something works in one country makes you realize what your life is like at home. You’re able to appreciate what you have.

What has been the most impactful lesson you’ve learned from traveling?

“The fragility of life.”

Bad things happen, and often it’s “not due to the fault of [the people]”.

During his dissertation field research, Dr. Barrett was in Madagascar. “A young boy died in my truck as we were trying to transport him to get help.”

At the time, he had two children at home. The boy’s mother could have been his wife; that boy could have been his child.

Even though he wasn’t responsible for the boy’s death, it has stayed with him. “You carry that with you.”

And unfortunately, tragedy doesn’t stop with one event. “Bad things propagate”; the boy’s family were farmers. During the grieving process, the family may not have had the capability to take care of the land. Their productivity lowers, and the risk of another child becoming sick increases. It snowballs”.

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