Dr Mukesh Kumar, Lecturer in Operations Management, hails from a village in India, which had no electricity until 2016. He has since applied his expertise to addressing food security issues.
If farming doesn’t become more commercially viable then we won’t have any farmers left. I think that’s the biggest risk to global food security. We have to look at distributing value more fairly.Dr Mukesh Kumar
Dr Kumar, who is from a village in Bihar, was no stranger to seeing smallholder farmers struggle to afford the seeds or medicines they needed.
Following a career in the financial industry, he joined the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM). Meeting others through the Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative, Dr Kumar realised he could apply his expertise to addressing the food security issues he grew up with.
He recently conducted a research project on resilience in the food supply chain, supported by the Initiative, with the help of Swapnil Shaktawat, a Masters student of Professor Manoj Kumar Tiwari from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur.
We caught up with Dr Kumar to find out more.
Could you tell us about the research project?
Swapnil, Professor Tiwari and I have been looking at risks to food supply chains, specifically climate change, water stress, and food safety risks, and what can be done to mitigate them.
We picked 11 case studies from grapes in California, to gherkins and pickles in Southern India, to shrimp in Andhra Pradesh. These have relatively simple supply chains, so we could study them from end to end and talk to people at every stage, from the farmers to the processors to the distributors. We’re building a portfolio of risk across the supply chains, so that resilience can then be built in to reduce food loss and shortage.
We found that different food products are affected by different kinds of risk, and by better understanding the links between the risk factors, we can help companies better manage risk. In some supply chains there are things you can’t change, like the growing region of a product. So you have to work out which processes in the supply chain you can change to mitigate the risks. We can’t take the Californian wine industry out of California, for example, but we can find ways to reduce water use, such as bringing in different irrigation systems. Our results will be used to develop a model that’s applicable to other crops and to more complex supply chains.
How does this relate to Global Food Security?
You can approach feeding the world from various perspectives. One is to produce more food for the growing population. But 27% of the food we already produce is wasted along the supply chain. If we didn’t waste it, we could feed an extra one billion people. So do we really need more food production? Do we really need to turn more forest and other natural habitat over to agriculture? I don’t think so. I’m interested in what’s going wrong to compromise food production, from crop failure because of extreme weather events, to food waste and safety in the supply chain, and how we can reduce losses.
What’s your favourite research tool?
Professor Tiwari and I have applied mathematical models and simulations to look at things like food transportation and how storage is clustered. Through this framework, we can develop a simple understanding of a complex topic.
In this project, we also had the case-study component, where we went and interacted with reality: meeting the people working in the fields and hearing about the problems in companies. For Swapnil that side of things really broadened her perspective. I think that’s what she really enjoyed and will bring into her work more in the future. Until this project, all her work was quantitative.
What did you enjoy most about working with Swapnil on this project?
This is the first time that I’ve worked with a student from IIT Kharagpur. Swapnil is not only very efficient, but very creative – she’s done a great job. She’s accommodated new ideas and she wants to experiment, which has made our work really interesting.
We need more of these interactions with the new generation of researchers because they’re developing new ways of thinking. And at an institutional level, her supervisor Professor Tiwari, who is leading food security research from an industrial engineering perspective in India, will continue to develop a research relationship with Cambridge to investigate food security issues in India.
I want to look at how to distribute value more fairly in the food supply chain. Many farmers are concerned that they’re not getting a fair price for their produce, particularly grain. Talking to Indian farmers I found that they’re actually subsidising the costs of consumer food. They’re poor. They have loans that they can’t repay and they don’t want their children to become farmers. They send their boys to school and try to marry their girls out of the farming life. If farming doesn’t become more commercially viable then we won’t have any farmers left. I think that’s the biggest risk to global food security. We have to look at distributing value more fairly.
Have you ever had a 'eureka' moment?
When I started talking to farmers I realised I’d been missing something. There I was going to fancy offices in my nice clothes, talking about companies and looking at everything from an industrial studies point of view, but I wasn’t talking to the farmers. Their voices were almost gone. I realised that farmers are one-man companies, and that looking at things from their perspective is really important.
What might other people be surprised to learn about you?
These days when I go back to my village in India they are so surprised that my research is about food. Until recently, I worked in pure operations management. They say to me: 'Why do you have to go to Cambridge University to talk about our food?' But few people realise how much engineering and operations knowledge this area requires, and just how much research goes on.
What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
To do what I feel is right, and not what other people tell me to do. Professor Sir Mike Gregory, the previous Head of IfM, told me that. He used to say: 'What keeps you awake at night Mukesh?' I'd reply: 'It’s the food. And I don’t mean because I feel hungry.'
This article was edited from the Cambridge Global Food Security website.
Words: Jacqueline Garget, Coordinator, Cambridge Global Food Security.