Published: Feb. 4, 2020 By

Maani Paani

Masters of the Environment (MENV) sustainable food systems graduate student, Dylan O’Neill, in partnership with an MENV student team* and the sustainable food systems specialization lead, Nicole Civita, have a vision: a vision of stakeholders and farmers who feel empowered to take action in the face of the climate change crisis; a vision where women and girls are leaders in communities and economies; a vision where soil, water, and hope (Maati-Panni-Asha) are renewed. In collaboration with Gopikabai Sitaram Gawande (GSG) College, located in the region of Umarkhed in the Yavatmal District of the country of India, and the Student and Education Support Association, Inc. (SESA), the team has finalized its submission for the Rockefeller Food System Vision Prize competition.

The story of the MENV team’s collaboration with GSG College and SESA began in November 2019, when a delegation from the college visited the United States and attended the Regenerative Earth Summit, hosted in Boulder. During the visit, college representatives, amongst them Boulder-based Sumeeta Gawande (who serves as a strategic advisor for the college and whose family is deeply invested in the Umarkhed region) set up a meeting with Nicole Civita and a group of interested students. The idea was to exchange information and ideas regarding farmer hardships and agricultural practices in the face of climate change.

From this initial meeting blossomed the possibility of developing a relationship between CU Boulder/the MENV program and GSG College/SESA.

“When I invited the delegation from GSG College to talk with me and several of my students during their first visit to the United States (for the Regenerative Earth Summit), I had no notion that our little meeting to share perspectives would turn into a huge, visionary international collaboration,” says Nicole, who suggested that the two groups work together on the Food System Vision Prize. “But after hearing from local experts who want nothing more than to offer the people of their region reasons to hope and ways to cope in the face of climate crisis, market failure, and widespread deprivation, I immediately knew that my students and I had to support them to the best of our abilities.”

Many who live in the Umarkhed region of India maintain modest lifestyles. The area is rural and is primarily agrarian in nature. It is also a noted “hot spot” for climate change impacts. The rate of farmer suicide in Umarkhed is increasing, with an average of eight farmer suicides per day. Indeed, the area is considered one of the most difficult in the country to be a farmer – a reality that is only exacerbated by climate change impacts, such as prolonged and recurring droughts. “The challenges we face in Umarkhed are real and deep,” explains Sumeeta, “seeing the struggles there, even within my own family in Umarkhed, is so heartbreaking. We at SESA and GSG refuse to be hopeless in the face of it.”

To assist the situation for farmers and their families, as well as nurture the relationship between people and the earth by increasing regenerative farming practices, Sumeeta, Nicole, Dylan, GSG, SESA, and team propose the creation of the Maati Paani Asha Center at GSG College. The center will “model and support transition farming, food access and provisioning, and food marketing practices; coordinate infrastructure improvements; disseminate novel psychosocial support; and host a multi-stakeholder advisory board,” according to the language of the team’s submission.

“Nicole’s guidance and MENV’s collaboration, along with Ohio University** and others, gives me real hope. It is huge. Deep thanks to all the MENV team,” Sumeeta emphasizes with gratitude.

Lauren Dunteman, who has served as an indispensable member of the team as a visual artist and stakeholder engager, reflects on her childhood on a farm and her own experiences with the struggles of changing weather patterns. “My heart goes out to this region in India that is being impacted much more significantly by climate change,” she says with empathy, adding, “It has been inspiring to connect across continents with the beautiful community of Umarkhed. I am honored to do whatever I can to promote this vision.”

Semi-finalists for the prize will be announced in early March. While top candidates will receive funding to propel their visions forward, Dylan notes, “The project was never really about the prize,” and affirms that the team intends to move forward with their vision regardless of the outcome. He reminds us: “It may not work. It’s such a daunting task, but we’ve got to try. Those of us living in the countries most responsible for climate change have a moral duty to assist those countries and communities that will bear the brunt of our destructive behavior.”

The Rockefeller Food System Vision Prize is a call for organizations worldwide to develop a vision of the food system that is nourishing and regenerative, and that is achievable in the next 30 years. The purpose of the competition is not just collaboration amongst stakeholders, academia, industry, and policymakers, but also to inspire and empower communities to write their own future-of-food stories. You can learn more about the competition and review the MENV/GSG team’s Maati-Paani-Asha submission online.

*Students who comprise the MENV team, in collaboration with Dylan O’Neill and Nicole Civita, include Lauren Dunteman, Randy Pistacchio, Anjani Moro, and, to a very small extent, myself (Mikkela Blanton).

**The Ohio University Office of Global Affairs & Center for International Studies also collaborated on the vision. Review the full vison online for a complete list of other organization and stakeholders collaborating with GSG, SESA, and MENV.