State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


From Laughter to Linear Regressions

By Tal Lee Anderman

oil palm fruit
The fruit of the oil palm, growing in the Millennium Village of Bonsaaso in Ghana. Photo: Millennium Promise

When my partner at the Global Honors College in Singapore suggested oil palm as the subject for our final paper, I laughed out loud. It sounded too far afield from the seminar’s theme on food. But after our initial proposed topic tanked, we began scouring the literature for clues into the challenges of sustaining this crop.

To be fair, what was obvious to a Malaysian studying in Singapore was slightly less clear to a California-born New Yorker, but as my knowledge on the subject grew, I quickly understood Jinwen’s enthusiasm. The plant affects migrant workers and soil microbial activity, alternative energy policies in Europe, and local food prices across South East Asia. This initial review soon expanded into 18 months of research, hundreds of written pages, and, most recently, a set of interviews for PhD programs around the country. In these, I discussed writing my dissertation on the sustainability of oil palm in local contexts, looking specifically at the industry’s impact on household food security.

Yet the key step that brought me to this stage was neither my final presentation in Singapore, nor the hope of obtaining a doctoral degree. Rather, it was my senior honors thesis, researched and written under the direction of Professor Ruth DeFries, in the department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, and Roseline Remans, in the Agriculture and Food Security Center (formerly TropAg). Working within the Millennium Village of Bonsaaso, Ghana, we sought to understand how producing oil palm as well as cacao beans, another regionally popular cash crop, affected the wellbeing and resilience of local farmers.

Reflecting the structure of my undergraduate major in sustainable development, I wanted the analysis to be multi-disciplinary. As such, we used a “web of sustainability,” originally developed at the Global Honors College, to assess both socio-economic and environmental dimensions of the industry. Specifically, we sought to discover correlations between the intensity of a smallholder’s cash crop production and the farmer’s food availability, access and utilization as well as their agro-diversity. The wealth of data collected by the Millennium Villages Project made it feasible to address these questions at the household level and over time.

A “web of sustainability” surrounding cash crops. Each sector interacts directly and continuously with every other. By studying oil palm, one also touches issues such as gender roles, food security and biodiversity. Red nodes indicate the subject of our research.
A “web of sustainability” surrounding cash crops. Each sector interacts directly and continuously with every other. By studying oil palm, one also touches issues such as gender roles, food security and biodiversity. Red nodes indicate the subject of our research.

To accomplish this, we drew on a variety of data sets. Using household, food frequency and anthropometric measurement surveys gathered at baseline (2006) and year three (2009) of the project, we developed a series of indicators for each of the sectors we had chosen to address. We also added a number of control variables, including household composition and dependency ratios, asset levels, education and livelihood strategies. The response, independent, and control variables were then gathered in the statistical modeling software STATA, where we ran a series of linear regressions to highlight correlations with our response variables, while controlling for confounding factors such as wealth and household dependency.

Our research uncovered many interesting results, especially pertaining to the relationship between cash crop agriculture and food availability and access. We are now in the process of turning the thesis into a manuscript for publication, and will soon submit it to a number of journals focusing on food security and natural resource management. Equally relevant, the outcomes are being assessed by Millennium Villages Project site leaders in Bonsaaso, with the hope of integrating some of the findings with better management practices for local development of oil palm and cacao beans.

Tal Lee Anderman
Presenting my research poster in the 2012 Environmental Science Senior Thesis Poster Session at Barnard College.

Having one’s research inform policies that aim to improve the quality of life for rural farmers is incredibly exciting. It reaffirms the motives that originally galvanized my studies of sustainable development at Columbia University, and provides incredible drive and inspiration as I take the next steps on my journey. I am very grateful for this experience, and eager to see where the path will lead.

Tal Lee Anderman was a research intern at the Agriculture and Food Security Center. Her work was undertaken with Roseline Remans and Professor Ruth DeFries on assessing nutrient gaps and nutritional transitions in relation to land use change.

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