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Spotlight: Dr. Alexa White, Co-Founder, Aya Research Institute

Dr. Alexa White is an agro-ecologist whose focus on food sovereignty could help stave off climate change.
Abigail Bassett
Jun 20, 2024 3 min read
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Explain what the AYA Research Institute does and why your passion for the intersection of food, environmental justice, and science and engineering research is such a key element of the work you do.

I am an agroecologist at the University of Michigan, as well as the executive director and co-founder of the Aya Research Institute, whose mission is to increase the number of people of color involved in environmental justice, science, and engineering research. We are particularly interested in just transition frameworks, as well as international ventures in the field of environmental justice. My personal motivations and form of advocacy are framed through food sovereignty work. Food sovereignty means that everybody has a right to understand where their food comes from and control the cultural aspects of their food.

Not everyone is familiar with the idea of food sovereignty. What does it mean, and how does it impact us all?

When we talk about food sovereignty, it affects everyone. Food sovereignty is necessary for us to be able to have a connection to land as well as our own nutritional experiences. For example, let’s say you're living in New York City, and it's in the middle of January, and you go into a supermarket and you pick up a mango.

But how are you able to get a mango in the middle of New York City in January? More than likely that mango was grown close to the equator. Food sovereignty tells us that we should be able to know and control, and make decisions about our food. Human beings have the right to eat what is culturally relevant and what brings them together.

How is food sovereignty directly related to climate change? What impact does food sovereignty have on climate change?

We already know through multiple studies that the agricultural sector, at an international scale, produces one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors. A large portion of that is because of land use change. Farms are a managed ecosystem. Typically, the more food sovereign you are, or a society or a group is, the smaller the farms are. The majority of the world's farms are small-scale farms–98% of the farmers in the world are smallholder farmers, as defined by the United Nations, that means that these are farmers who own and work two hectares or less of land. But about 48% of that land is controlled by large farms. So the other 52% is controlled by the 2% of large farms in the world. That 52% is what's producing the greenhouse gas emissions that are creating climate change.

How will your work with Aya help change our relationship to food sovereignty and the environment?

AYA Research Institute is a science-based organization that conducts environmental justice public policy research to fill the current gaps in our knowledge and address past, present, and future environmental atrocities. AYA prioritizes using community-driven data and rigorous impact analysis. We are very interested in expanding our fellowship programs at the AYA Research Institute to increase the technical capacity of different organizations. Our new campaigns are geared towards capacity building and a better understanding of what the international community needs.

What advice do you have for someone looking to get involved in climate justice and food sovereignty today?

I would say that if you'd like to be involved in food sovereignty, the first place you need to look is La Via Campesina's website. They do a fantastic job of making all of this information very palatable and it's a global network of people that you can also speak to. Outside of that, I would say that a lot of the power behind these decisions that need to be made is within policy. You have to vote. You have to be politically aware.

If you’re in the US, I'd like to bring your attention to the US Omnibus Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a bill that is renewed every four years. There's always a lot of lobbying behind it, but a lot more lobbying than people think because transnational agricultural corporations control the massive deal behind corporate agriculture and its existence today. Voting happens every year it happens every quarter, sometimes, in different specific places and in different countries. So participating in those political systems is key and thinking about the power differentials between farmers, you and politicians, as well as for-profit and non-profit corporations, is really important to fixing any of this.

The Climatebase Fellowship had the pleasure of of having Dr. Alexa White as a keynote speaker during cohort 5.  Fellowship applications are now open for our next cohort, learn more about how you can apply here.

The Author

Abigail Bassett