UVA Engineering Professor Helps Draft U.S. Foreign Policy on Urban Food Security

Each year, after conducting a nationwide search, the U.S. Department of State selects up to 15 Jefferson Science Fellows to come to Washington and work as science advisors on policy issues at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Recognizing that in-depth knowledge of science, technology, and engineering had become critical to effective foreign policy, the Department’s Office of the Science & Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State established the program in 2003 as a way to tap university expertise.

Garrick Louis, a University of Virginia associate professor of systems engineering, civil & environmental engineering, and engineering and society, is a 2015-16 Jefferson Science Fellow.

“For someone like myself whose work lies at the intersection of engineering, public policy, and human development, this is a perfect opportunity,” Garrick said.  He is serving in the Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary of State on Global Food Security.

Louis is founding director of the Small Infrastructure and Development Center in the Engineering School, dedicated to exploring models for building local capacity in rural, low-income, and developing communities to gain sustained access to essential human services.

Louis’ own background is in decentralized water and sanitation systems, but he has collaborated with researchers on shelter, household energy, indoor air, food, and personal security.

The advantages for the State Department of having someone of Louis’ caliber and interests working side-by-side with career foreign service officers is clear. Louis said many offices in the State Department do not have a scientist or engineer on staff.  When they require this type of expertise, they go outside the department, a time-consuming process.

“The Jefferson Science Fellows program enables them to have a technical expert as an integral member of their in-house team working on the issue,” he said. In Louis’ case, the special representative, Dr. Nancy Stetson, asked him to help craft a policy on urban food security.

Louis’ work will supplement the current U.S. international food security programs, such as Feed the Future, which focuses on rural poverty and hunger. The rapid rate of urbanization in places like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia requires US global food security policy to take a more expansive view.

Louis is approaching the problem from a systems perspective.  “I am trying to find out what we know about urban hunger and poverty, and their connections to rural hunger and poverty,” he said.

In doing so, he is assessing the work that other organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Foreign Agricultural Service, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Program have done in this area.

“My role is to characterize the current state of affairs, identify the strengths and weaknesses of current approaches, and develop a policy that the department can introduce at an international forum by Fall 2016,” he said.

Louis sees two interrelated challenges to be addressed.  He notes that urbanization is accompanied by significant outmigration from rural areas, including smallholder farmers.  To be effective, his policy must enable these farmers to sustain a viable livelihood on their farms with adequate access to essential human services like water, sanitation, and healthcare, while finding a way for the food they produce to provide resilient, domestic food security to rural and urban residents, including the urban poor.

Louis has been both informed and energized by the experience.  “Getting a hands-on perspective of how international development policy is created—and being able to contribute to the process—has been fantastic,” he said.

He also hopes that the insight he has gained and the contacts he has made will help accelerate the growth of his Small Infrastructure and Development Center at UVA.

“My hope is that being able to connect what I’ve been working to accomplish at UVA to the greater world of policy I will be able to open new avenues for research and education,” he said.