How Veronika Vogel ’21 transformed an interest in people and plants into a career for good
Veronika Vogel ’21 came to Cornell CALS from Nesselwang, Germany seeking to make a positive impact on the global food system. As an International Agriculture & Rural Development major with minors in Plant Science and Plant Breeding, Veronika explored food systems from multiple perspectives — from international agriculture’s effect on development outcomes to the role of gender in wheat breeding. Her studies took her to intern in Ecuador with the International Potato Center where she worked with Andean communities to understand their challenges, preferences and impact on sustainable agriculture. As an international agriculture specialist, Veronika hopes to translate research into better policy in the field of international agriculture.
What drew you to the field of global development?
Studying agriculture in the context of international development is incredibly challenging and rewarding. Just think of the wide the range of circumstances agriculture is practiced in and the diversity of ways in which it affects people's lives makes it a worthwhile field of study. Studying international agriculture means engaging not only with growing food and raising animals, but constantly reflecting on overarching issues. Food security, poverty, climate change, migration, human rights and political agency are all tied up with international agriculture. The work of developing a just food system that sustainably nourishes everyone is complex, nuanced and full of challenges, but one well worth engaging with whether in rural development or other disciplines.
You interned at the International Potato Center in Ecuador. What was that like and what impact did that experience have on you?
Working with the International Potato Center, or CIP as it is known, and farmers in the Cotopaxi region of Ecuador was pivotal to my understanding of rural livelihoods, changing socio-economic landscapes and ecological impact. CIP is part of a network of research centers called the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. The CGIAR centers not only promote research in the crops they specialize in, but often are instrumental in breeding improved varieties and offering extension services. Headquartered in Peru, CIP specializes in potatoes, sweet potatoes and Andean tubers.
Throughout my internship, I had the chance to repeatedly visit a number of farming communities. My engaged internship in global development challenged me to put aside my preconceived notions of issues I was expecting to observe. To understand what it is like to be a farmer in the region and learn about the challenges they face, I had to first listen to the farmers and ask the right questions in order to reflect deeply on my impressions and biases and gain a holistic perspective on farming conditions and farmers’ decisions. While some issues were particular to a specific farming community, such as pest or disease problems or market access, other issues persisted across many communities. We visited and interviewed farmers at different altitudes and sides of the valley about their practices in storing and selecting potato seed. We wanted to know where they get their seed from and what traits they are looking for when selecting potatoes to grow.
From the fieldwork, we were able to document the labor migration of men, which went to work in urban areas, which thereby feminized the agricultural landscape. We found that shifting household dynamics, income streams and labor availability affects communities and transforming the agriculture they practice. Finding ways of ensuring sustainable agriculture in highly erosive areas of the Ecuadorian Andes while serving the shifting priorities and needs of farmers will be a continuous challenge.
Photos from the field
You did your thesis on international plant breeding. Tell us more about your research.
Being interested in the work of CGIAR, I got the chance to work with Professor Conny Almekinders from Wagenigen University in the Netherlands on an assignment to find 'actionable entry-points for gender-sensitive breeding' at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT. Gender has increasingly become recognized as an important factor in crop cultivation and plant breeding due to division of labor and associated trait preferences depending on the farming and processing tasks women are (or are not) involved in. In order to better understand if and how breeders at CIMMYT find gender an actionable variable to work with and what strategies could integrate a more gender-aware approach to their breeding programs, I interviewed a range of breeders and breeding support staff at the center.
In this research, I found an increasing donor interest in integrating gender into wheat breeding. Being limited in staff and covering large wheat growing areas in the developing world, CIMMYT has no easy task in developing varieties that suit a large number of farmers and consumers.
We need to think differently to best serve the needs of farming communities in the developing world. Gender can play a significant role in shaping the metrics we use to breed varieties suited to the demands of particular communities and their farmers. However, gender relations and other forms of social differentiation (such as age, location, land access, etc.) can be very context-specific and vary across different communities and regions. Therefore, it is important to understand to what extent CIMMYT can serve specific demands and where and when national partners and local breeding staff have better capacities to do so.
How has your time at Cornell CALS influenced your career goals?
Being at CALS challenged me in many ways. Coming from Europe, I was exposed to different narratives on different phases of international agriculture — from agricultural technologies to the scale of farming. CALS is a home to many different disciplines, which presents diverse mindsets in terms of how challenges are framed or approached. Global Development really captures CALS’ intellectual excitement and multidisciplinary approach. Learning in Global Development at CALS has enabled me to form a much more nuanced perspective on the future of agriculture and the plethora of ways to address issues in different contexts. I continue to be amazed by the reach of the network I was able to build while I was here and the support I have received from faculty throughout my time at Cornell. Global Development has certainly enabled me to 'dream bigger' and open doors I did not think would open for me this early in my career. Having had that much exposure to different disciplines within agriculture and international development as well as diverse types of research encouraged me to share my passions in a policy context.
Studying at CALS and working with institutions such as the CGIAR and public sector research made me realize the impact policy has on agriculture downstream. I am hoping to help translate research into better agricultural policy and make policy more conducive to support the preservation of crop genetic resources and sustainable agriculture globally.
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