in Books, Experiment, Health, Life, Podcast, Problem Solving

S2 E2 – Prabhu Pingali

‘Transforming Food Systems For Rising India’ through the Tata-Cornell Initiative.

Prabhu Pingali is a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, with a joint appointment in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and Department of Global Development. Professor Pingali is the founding director of the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI). Prior to joining Cornell, he was the deputy director of the Agricultural Development Division of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, from 2008 to May 2013. He was director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Agriculture and Development Economics Division from 2002-2007.

We need to solve the access to food problem! Food doesn’t come from super markets!

Show Notes & Links

Transcript Follows

Madhav SBSS 0:00
Hello boys and girls. Welcome to this episode of seeking Sathya podcast. My guest today is Prabhu Pingali. He is a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He is the founding director of the Tata Cornell Institute for agriculture and nutrition. Prior to joining Cornell, he was the deputy director Agricultural Development Division of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He worked at the UN and also he was a member in the US. In fact, he’s a member in the US National Academy of Sciences. He’s written numerous books 13 to be specific, and has written plenty of articles, 120 refereed journal articles, and lots of book chapters on food policy. Very excited to have you on the show, Prabhu. Thanks for joining.

Prabhu Pingali 0:48
Thanks, Madhav. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you.

Madhav SBSS 0:51
Could you share a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? And how was it like?

Prabhu Pingali 0:56
Sure. I was actually born in a small village, in Andhra Pradesh, on the coast, in the district, congressional district, and right by the Krishna River. And my father was a farmer and a medical doctor. And he provided free medical services to that village, but the surrounding 10 or so villages also depended on him for his medical, for the clinic and the clinic. And so he will joke that he delivered every single baby in a 10 mile radius in his, during his 30, 40 years that he was practicing medicine in the village. And so I grew up in that village, and seeing that village transform itself from a desperately poor village to becoming increasingly prosperous. And that happened because of new rice technology that came in around the 19. Around, say, 1965 66, the time when I was about 10, or 11 years old. And so we’ve seen this transformation happening from a village which didn’t have enough food to eat, they were growing just one crop a year, getting around one tonne per hectare of rice, barely enough to survive, to being able to grow to three crops and getting four to five tonnes per crop. And so suddenly, you saw this big transformation with farmers being able to sell the majority of the grain and farm incomes rising. And with that we saw, you know, children going off to school to college, I am proud to say my college was paid for by this agricultural revolution that happened. And similarly for my siblings also. And that’s the transformation we saw in this village. But when you look across the country, that transformation happened across the country, in this time period in the late 60s 70s, to the 80s. And that’s how the Indian middle class was formed. So that’s been my roots. And I’ve been very proud of having been born and had my early childhood, in that rural setting.

Madhav SBSS 3:47
Wow, that’s, I can see some of the, like you said, roots of what you’ve been working on. And I can maybe if I may ask, like, was there any particular childhood experience or incident or anything that influenced your career and your work?

Prabhu Pingali 4:05
So the Madhav, you know, the inner child during my childhood, you see these things, but you don’t conceptualize time, it doesn’t crystallize as Oh, that’s an important issue that I just learned about is they just kind of stick in your mind. And it was, much later when I was in college, that I started to bring these together. And as I was reading the literature as I was reading about economic development and all that, then you say, Oh, that’s what really happened. Right? So. So some images in my mind from those years was once this new technology came in. One of the biggest problems that farmers faced was, where do you put all this grain because they will So much grain coming in. And so they was sacks and sacks of grain all over. And I can remember going into farmers homes and they’d have sacks of grants under their beds and on the roof and everywhere, because there was no place to put them. And in those days, there wasn’t a good road to the market to the market town, which was about 15 miles away. And, but there was a little canal that connected you into the town. And side, remember this line of boats, stacked the grain on, and then the boats would be taken off to the market. And all that changed over the years, over the years, we saw roads being built a bridge over that canal and lend a dime across the river, and electricity coming in. So all these changes happen over the next decade or so. But those early years, they were very formative. And in my mind, when I think back about economic development and the roots of the economic level.

Madhav SBSS 6:19
It’s one of the things I had noticed as you talk about food systems in your book, you know how it’s not just about one thing, there’s, it’s a system, it’s a systems approach that you need to take to solve this problem. And it’s not just about growing crops, it’s about storage. And it’s about all those things that you actually saw as a child growing up, literally like bags of, you know, rice under your bed and things like that. I think those are probably very vivid memories from your childhood. One of the things that people say, of course, is like, we are what we eat, right? Absolutely. And on that, actually, I was digging up a little bit on new work. And then I did notice, I think, God through your blog, I went to one of your blogs on TCI website, and it was talking about how you sort of brought this orange fleshed sweet potatoes to India, I am not sure if it’s a new thing that was brought into your India or was it something that existed and you brought that through TCI to a particular part of India.

Prabhu Pingali 7:18
So I can’t take too much claim for all of that. That happened. The concept of orange fly sweet potato is a concept that was developed by a group called harvestplus. harvestplus is his research group that works out of Washington DC, in this based at the International Food Policy Research Institute, but they have research centers in different parts of the world where they’ve been experimenting with different crops, the main role of this group is to to enhance grain and root crops etc by by improving the nutrient content. So improving iron content or zinc content, or vitamins, content, so people who consume rice for example, if you can increase the amount of zinc and iron and rice, then your a your nutrient value of bad rice increases also. So that’s the concept behind it. And and they’ve been looking in India quite a bit there’s zinc fortified wheat out there that is being experimented and being promoted. Iron fortified rice, etc, that take that are being worked on. But sweet potato is not a major crop in India, right? It’s it’s something you eat as a snack. Or maybe it’s a small vegetable, but it’s not a staple. But in Africa, in East Africa and Uganda, Tanzania, etc. Sweet, but it is a staple crop. That’s what you want. That’s the main dish, and then you may have other things around it. And so they but they will eat in this white sweet potato, which doesn’t have that many nutrients. And so the idea was how do you make this more nutritive and that’s when the concept of orange flesh sweet potato came in that has higher levels of vitamin A. So through breeding processes, not biotechnologist straight breeding processes, they were able to improve the sweet potatoes that were being used in Africa by enhancing the vitamin A content. And they’ve tested that and they’ve shown that that has really big impact on Child Health and Child Nutrition. So what we tried to do was to say if you have that material, and that material was being tested in India, but wasn’t promoted yet, so we said, Can we go out into some villages send and test the sound test to see how farmers will grow it and how they would consume it. And we also created a way in which we can, we had a media program to train women in the village on how to cook it and make baby food from it. And, and also build the value chain for marketing the crop. And so we worked in about 40 villages in, in maharajganj, area in utter Pradesh. And we had a really wonderful NGO that we worked with, called GDS, Grameen development services. They were phenomenal group of people, and they really helped promote this crop across the region. And we had one of our PhD student Katie Merkel, who finished a PhD last year, she spent two years living in Mirage gardens and, and document introduced the crowd documented all the changes that took place and work through the whole thing. And that was a PhD thesis as well. And it really took off in that area. And, and they were other efforts going on simultaneously, to, to advocate for this crop. And, and we just found out,

the government of up has announced that they’re going to introduce forageplus, sweet potato into their midday meal program in the schools. And so, you know, we were doing some of the academic side of the work and testing it out and making sure that from an agronomic point of view, but also from an economic point of view, it makes sense to grow it and then look at the nutritive impacts of that. And at the same time, they were the groups that were trying to advocate for government policy change in order to promote this. So it was quite a few different actors playing around this. So are we had a role to play but I don’t want to say that, without as nothing would have happened.

Madhav SBSS 12:51
One of the things that, I know, we’ll cover in a little bit like the data that you’re collecting through all these on field studies, and things like that, which is lacking quite a bit, I guess, in making the right choices or decisions, but just on the consumer level, or people actually even talk about the nutrition aspect of it. And that’s the reason why you brought at least try to introduce this into the pradesh this particular vegetable. Is that something that is up across the country now? Or is that still limited? Do you know like, how do you take something that you know, works really well, in particular location locally, and try to distribute the same knowledge across the country? I guess that’s one of the challenges, you know, what is nutritious but right. How do you distribute the knowledge as well as the vegetable? Of course?

Prabhu Pingali 13:42
Well, government policy plays a big role. And government extension, government promotion plays a big role. Because, you know, we can only have ideas and say, here’s something that work. But we don’t have the scale to go nationwide that something like this. And that’s why a lot of what we do is work in on helping governments think through the policy and advocate for change. So to give you an example, I talked about that rice varieties that transformed my village in the 60s and 70s. That was not an accidental thing that that that happened because in the 60s and 70s, India was facing massive food deaths, if India was facing massive starvation, and India was depending on massive amounts of food aid, coming from the US and other countries just to feed its population. It’s something that people don’t think about anymore, but that was the reality at that time. And that’s when you know, this new varieties of right For being developed in the Philippines in the international rice Research Institute, and there was a similar wheat variety being developed in Mexico. And so that’s the Indian government at that time. And the head of the Indian Agriculture Research system, which was Dr. Swaminathan, who’s very famous plant breeder and her really famous agriculturalists in India, he identified these varieties as the way in which India can come out of a wonderful hand and therefore then got Indian government policy to, to promote these varieties and the Extension System, really pushing them out and the credit system input system, everything coming together, that then created the change. So by 1975, when there was self sufficient food, so we went from being absolutely desperate, and 65 to self sufficient and 7010 year period. And that changed the overall economy, because that surplus then kickstarted economic growth, the movement of populations into urban in the middle class growth that happened, all of that came through. So I tell you the story, because government policy today in India, still looks at agriculture, as it were still in 1960. So they’re still trying to address these problems, the hunger problem, but what we’re saying is, we’ve done very well on the hunger problem, obviously, they’re still hungry people. But it’s not because of lack of enough food. It’s because there’s an access problem. But from a food supply point of view, we’ve got enough rice, and then we need to be able to feed our populations, what we don’t have is more nutritious food. So we don’t have enough supply of fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, other dairy products, livestock products, etc. And so the challenge now is to go from just increasing rice and wheat supply to looking at a much more balanced food system. And once we get government policy thinking in those terms, then we’ll be able to do what we were so successful in doing in the past, which is okay, how do you promote this more balanced food systems? Which regions are best for producing what types of crops what’s the market infrastructure and other infrastructure needed the food safety systems that need to be in place, the value chains and connecting farmers to the markets and to the supermarket chains, etc, all of those then come in. But it’s that paradigm shift that has to happen. And we that’s where I think one of the motivations for the book was to create that paradigm shift. And whenever I’m in India, and I talk with government officials, or I give public lectures, etc. That’s what I’m promoting.

So they’re still trying to address these problems, the hunger problem, but what we’re saying is, we’ve done very well on the hunger problem, obviously, they’re still hungry people. But it’s not because of lack of enough food. It’s because there’s an access problem.

Madhav SBSS 18:44
One thing I wanted to touch before we jump into like talking a little bit more about your book, I wanted to talk briefly about between the time you grew up in India, and then you moved on to you came to you, as you did your PhD. I think in North Carolina State. Any particular lessons or things that you would impart to others listeners, either in terms of education, teaching, and your early aspirations, as you know, as you were growing up in the US, quote, unquote. So

Prabhu Pingali 19:24
I came to the US in 1977. fairly early in terms of South and South Asian movement to the US taper a few. I think in North Carolina State, we had about 100 Indians, like a few 1000 years, right. And so it was a very different era. So, at that time, we didn’t have the They know, the opportunity to have Indian communities to integrate into when we arrived, so we were very much forced to, to integrate into the US community. And, and that they changed my thinking a lot, they changed my lifestyle a lot. So I’ve went very quickly from a very Indian oriented person to becoming much more international to help the in the rest of my career quite a bit. And because then you can, uh, you essentially have Phaeton towards you still maintain your Indian roots, roads and still be able to be an international person. And that early movement have a lot in that respect. I think today, students coming in from India can essentially continue to be part of an Indian community. In the US, we didn’t have that luxury in those days. I think that made a big, big difference in my life over time. And that then allowed me to, to think more broadly about the world where I want to be and I was, obviously happy being in the US, but I felt I wanted to go out and do some things outside the US. So we lived in the Philippines, we lived in Mexico, we lived in Rome, and then came back again to the US so that international experiences were really important for my own thinking about food, agriculture and economic development. But our kids grew up in that. And so they have two daughters, and our daughters went to school and the Philippines and in Mexico and in Rome. So they came out, you know, speaking multiple languages, knowing multiple cultures and, and it had huge impact on their lives.

Absolutely. Talking on that point of having the exposure to multicultural, multi regional, one of the things that I wanted to ask you is around, is there a place on this planet, or any country where a system that you have in your mind, or the vision that you have for a food systems approach is actually working really well? Like a model? You know, what I mean? Like, I look at us, for example, I said, these years the model, I’m not sure. I mean, there is abundance of nutritious foods here. But you also know, I think one of the stats again, not not everything on internet is true, but 42% of Americans are obese, which is like staggering 120 30 million people. But it’s not because they don’t have the nutritious food. So I’m just curious, like, if you saw, in your experience, you know, living in different parts of the world, if there was something that actually is working in some place that we could, you know, take from Yeah, that’s a really important question. If I had to, to say, here’s one place that comes close to what I think would be ideal, I would say Thailand is probably as close as you look at in terms of diversity of foods, food supply that’s available and then number of food groups and also the nutritive value. And, and the reason I say that is Thailand came Thailand’s agriculture development was very different from India, for example. Indian I will consider that mangoes primarily because India was starving, and they needed food immediately to meet hunger needs. Thailand was not in that situation. Thailand had a much lower population density. They were a major rice exporting country from the 1950s. They were expecting exporting high quality rice etc. But they didn’t have this, this focus on rice or nothing. Whereas India’s focus and many of the other Asian countries focus was we need to get more rice and more wheat produced. Whereas they didn’t have that and and because of that, as The rise productivity increased. The government of Thailand basically started to promote movement out of rice. So the government of Thailand started to promote vegetable production production, fish production, aquaculture in a big way, other livestock production systems and they focused on markets. And how do you get produce from farm to markets, and really push commercialization, not commercialization as corporate, no harming, but small farmers being connected to markets as the commercialization process. So if you look at Thailand today, it has some of the best nutrition outcomes in the population. And significantly lower levels of obesity. India now has very high levels of obesity, India has, you know, problems under nutrition and over nutrition. You don’t see that as much in Thailand, as you do in India. So, that’s kind of a model. some European countries also have a very balanced food system now. But the reason I don’t put them as an example is it has come with huge amounts of government protection and government subsidy. Right? of different types. So, gun can buy the system to government protection. Let’s maybe you want to jump into a little bit about the book that you’ve written also around just about around books. Really. I mean, it’s such an interesting topic to me like the book is called transforming food systems for a rising India.

Madhav SBSS 27:00
And it’s anyone listening, please definitely check it out. It’s It’s a wonderful book. It’s got so much content in terms of what are the systemic issues that need to be handled, and so on. But we’ll get into that a little bit. The one of the basic questions I had was around, is there a link between the cover image of the book and women and women literacy because I was looking at the book, and I couldn’t help noticing there was, no matter what I said the color was all women. And it was intriguing to me like there must be something about that. I think you were trying to I guess you’re trying to express something through that image as well. You know, it’s there’s something about the women power in India, that needs to, I guess, rise up or something?

Prabhu Pingali 27:55
Well, yeah, the cover was not accidental. It was, it was, by the way that this was an artist representation that we actually bought for the tower, but what we were looking for was a way in which to represent rural. And then food systems and rural, agriculture, rural communities. And when you think about who is most involved in agriculture, it’s women, right? Women do most of the work in agriculture, both on the production side on the harvest, and post harvest, and the food preparation side. So across that whole chain, the majority of the work that then in food and agriculture is done by men. And that’s what we wanted to highlight. And in the book, we talk a lot about the role women play in agriculture and how transforming food systems requires us to be focused on on extension services and providing knowledge to women. Rather than doing it as we’ve traditionally done, to men, only women, obviously we should be looking at men also, but has to be inclusive of women. Otherwise, you lose the ability to make that sustainable change. So the cover actually reflects that quite well.

Madhav SBSS 29:38
Maybe we should just briefly talk about the food systems approach like what what are you trying to build a new food tech stack, if you will, at least in the tech world, we talk about tech stacks, like, oh, we’re building this new mobile stack and this stack. Is it fair to say that you’re either trying to build or promote a better food system stack Have some thoughts and is that sort of a central piece of the book?

Prabhu Pingali 30:04
I’m really trying to change the paradigm. Basically, with trying to change the way people think about food and food systems and in agriculture, because, you know, most middle class Indian children don’t think about food or agriculture. I mean, they think about food in terms of what you eat, what they eat, but they don’t really know, where does food come from? Right. And, and that’s a, that’s a big shame. because much of middle class India’s roots have higher end rural areas, you know, like, I’m the first generation out of my village. And, and if you look at, across India, and even among the Indian population living in the US, people of my generation would most probably have come from a village. So most of the middle class Indian populations, children today are maybe one or two generations removed from the farm. But since there’s no connection anymore, they don’t really think about that. But where the food comes from the food systems etc, has come from safe supermarkets. And so, one, the motivation was explaining this whole system, and explaining how agriculture made the difference and overall growth of the economy. And it’s because of agriculture growth, that Punjab and Haryana and Tamil Nadu and Andhra have become so much more prosperous, compared to Bihar, Orissa, where agricultural productivity has been low poverty continues to be high, etc. So, so all of those issues at the same time, we wanted to explain that. India is a country where, as I said, before you see people who are undernourished and people who are obese, in the same country, and with high levels of birth, and why do you see that? Why do you see such high obesity? And what can we do? And what’s the role of getting a more balanced diet, more nutritious diet of vegetables, fruit, etc, that can help address the problem of obesity. And so that was the other part of what we wanted to bring in. And then the third part was, I talked about all these regions, which are being left behind like Bihar, or is etc. What’s the future. And in a sense, the future is not trying to produce more rice and wheat. Because they already tried that it didn’t work. But the future could be in producing more nutritious meals and, you know, pulses excetra, or vegetables, etc, and connecting them to urban markets. If you connect that to the middle class, demand for these diverse foods, then you create a new growth opportunity. And so that’s how we were thinking about this. And we tried to pull this together. But the challenge was to make it make all of this easily accessible. And rather than talking the economies, which we normally do, and that was something we worked very hard on to make it a book that anybody could read and get the main story.

Madhav SBSS 34:05
You definitely, I mean, you touched on it now but also in the book and where you do see a very clear divide between some states really prospering because of agricultural revolution and efficiencies while whereas others are not. One of the things I wanted to touch on was what is the correlation between economic growth or opportunity and nutrition?

Prabhu Pingali 34:27
That’s a great question. One would presume that there is that very good connection between growth and incomes and nutrition, unfortunately, breaks down. It breaks down for a couple of reasons. One is fairly cheap and easy access to processed foods and especially with time pressure, you know, processed food It’s so much easier to cook and consume than fresh food. So that breaks down that connection. The other reason it breaks down is while the demand for fresh food prices with income, the supply doesn’t really catch up. Because markets haven’t developed faster. That market connections, the value chains haven’t been built fast enough. So because of that, it’s created a bit of a market failure situation. And, and that’s part of the reason why we’ve seen India tripping from undernutrition to nutrition. Now with the more recent changes that are happening, then they are more exciting, because there’s much more awareness of health in India today than there was even 10 years ago. And there’s much more awareness that, you know, we should eat millets and we should be pulses, and fresh food etc. And that new awareness, I think, will create new demands for better nutrition. And that may then result in some some reversal in this obesity trends.

Madhav SBSS 36:30
We’re taking on all the obesity trends that the West in developers have had for a while. You also talked or at least not just talk, actually, I’ve done a lot of work around different up and coming fields of study our areas like agri tech and you know, potentially urban farming, vertical farming. plant based meat, I think you do mention it in one of your talks around beyond meat and things like that. You touched on universal basic income, Farm to Market and farm bills and things like that. Just curious if there was one thing that you had to pick from all these, do you see anything in particular that actually stands out or all of them are pretty much big issues we need to be handling right now.

Prabhu Pingali 37:17
I think the big change, change agent that I think we look looking at now and it will become really important over the next decade is the role of ICT in agriculture. The whole Information Technology, you know, smartphones are now ubiquitous, right in urban India, but they’re also moving very rapidly into rural India. Now, as that happens, you go from smartphones to smart farming. And the way you do smart farming as you begun to look at ways in which you make better decisions on, on what to grow, what inputs to use, what time to use those inputs, and how much to use it at different points within your own farm. So for example, in the US farming, when the farmer is sitting on a tractor and he is applying fertilizer, his tractor is connected to the GPS thing, which then tells him and then his soil is completely mapped in terms of the nutritive value of each little meter square. So as the tractor goes out, the GPS will connect up and to this, the soil characteristics of that plot prayer is on. And it will tell him what different combinations of fertilizer that has to be applied in that little plot, like a one meter square, and you keep I’m just kind of simplifying this. I mean, I understand that at that level anyway. And so keep doing that. And that then improves enormously the efficiency with which you apply fertilizer and, and the long term sustainability of that, that land because you’re not over fertilizing or under fertilizing, you’re just meeting the needs of the soil at that particular place in the right way. So that’s one example of smart farming. But smart farming also is connected to water use. So you know when with nanotechnology, you can now have ways in which you can have a little chip in the in a plant or in the Soil nearby, which can signal that the plant needs water now, right, and that technology scale, it’s used for grapes in New York State, right here in where we live in Ithaca, if you just drive down 10 miles from here, when you use this technology. And now if we can use this on rice farming in India, well, that’s country transfer. So that completely changes water use efficiency. So you’re no longer talking about over watering or under watering, and having drought situations or flooding switch, where you can create a mechanism that allows farmers to make decisions on better materials, that then helps you protect against groundwater depletion, and all these other factors that come in. And then connecting to markets. You know, once you have smart farming system, information, market information comes into your cell phone, you know, the market price was today, you’re able to then make a decision, should I go out and sell or not sell. And now he markets, electronic markets are coming up in a big way. So your cell phone can then connect into the electronic market. So these are all possible. And I think these are this is where we’re going to go in the next decade. and India is fortunate because we’ve got a very strong ICT sector, right. And we’ve got a very strong farming sector, we have to marry the two. And my my challenge is the people who work on ICT have no clue of farming.

So for example, in the US farming, when the farmer is sitting on a tractor and he is applying fertilizer, his tractor is connected to the GPS thing, which then tells him and then his soil is completely mapped in terms of the nutritive value of each little meter square.

Some of them are your audience. So maybe they’ll hear me. And of course the Germans are getting into attention people families

are getting into smartphones, but they’re using it for WhatsApp messaging, but we need to get beyond to something really where they can get into smartphone. That’s that I think the future I’m really excited about.

Madhav SBSS 42:13
It is exciting, actually, as you talking about the the nano millimeter and the efficiencies around you know how much water to apply were in my conversations with Professor katholische mantium from MIT. I recall him talking about that level of precision also. But he’s working on his research and all the work he’s doing at MIT is around actually producing water or whatever needs to be there like fertilizer or chemicals that are needed, right locally as opposed to having to produce it in a far off place and have to transport in all that. It’s just so fascinating to hear you talk about it as well, it like things are coming together. It’s it’s a great, yeah, it looks very promising. Before I jump off from this book conversation, I wanted to touch briefly on just your thoughts on like, you know, book and writing, writing books. You have written a few books. Do you have any practices or any tips for people who want to improve writing?

Prabhu Pingali 43:19
I’m not sure I have lots of great tips. But meat, it’s always a challenge, I think, because it requires pulling the whole set of things together. It’s much in writing a journal article is easy in a way, because you’ve got 1015 pages and you just take an idea and just work on that. And you’re done. Whereas in a book, you’re trying to make a full story and and get that full story across. So what I’ve done in the past pretty much with all of my books says I write that story up in like 10 pages. Before I start the book, I just write up what I think is the bottom line story.

Madhav SBSS 44:09
Do you have a beginning middle and an end in?

Prabhu Pingali 44:11
Yeah, just like the full story and 10 pages and and then then they say okay, now how does that translate into chapters and put those chapters together and have little synopsis around that. That’s how I’ve usually worked on the book. And that, of course, as you work on it, those 10 pages change over time, the first 10 pages, but at least it’s the starting point. And quite often that 10 pages then become my introduction to the book. It because then for pretty much all my books. If someone just reads that first chapter, they get a fairly good idea of what the book the rest of the book is about. That’s been a good way. Good model. But to be frank, it takes a lot of effort. And and given that I’ve been doing so many different things, focusing on a book is very hard. So I’ve always worked with collaborators, and have students that this this book, my latest one, I’ve worked with my postdoctoral fellows, Cornell, and then they were absolutely super this. But really hard when pulling this together. It’s always been a collaborative effort with different people.

Madhav SBSS 45:40
Do you have any particular practice, like some book authors would have you write every day at a particular time doesn’t matter? You know, you get into the practice of writing, or is that not something that obviously is not your full time job, you have 15 other things, right?

Prabhu Pingali 45:58
It’s, so I, I, I like the fact that one could do that, but I have not been able to do it. For me, it’s, it’s more like, suddenly, I just block off a couple of weeks and work on something and then deep

Madhav SBSS 46:18
calls it.

Prabhu Pingali 46:19
Otherwise, it doesn’t work for me just you know, a couple of hours each day, especially because I’m managing a team and I’m teaching. And then we’re doing big research group programs in India. So I’m traveling a lot, except that over the last year I’ve been traveling, but otherwise then be on the road. So I usually just block off a few weeks here and there and just work on. On my right. Wonderful. I

Madhav SBSS 46:50
may make sense to me, deep work pays off, I heard the I haven’t read many people very busy people, like Bill Gates, I think blogs about it as on his blog, takes two weeks time off, just to work on a particular idea. And that’s, that makes a lot of sense. Just on the note of books, do you have any particular books that have influenced you? Or that you’ve gifted or recommended to people?

Prabhu Pingali 47:13
Oh, I’ll tell you what, one book that influenced me a lot from my high school days and still has, you know, it’s something I still think about. It’s George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Oh, why Animal Farm is such an incredible book, you know, story about animals taking over the farm from from humans, right, and then then creating this egalitarian society and the pigs running the farm ramen, burning the whole government and, and running the farm and everything and, but over time, the inequality starts coming in. And over time, you know, all pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal. And you begin to see that change happening where animals are starting to become like humans. And the same reasons why they throughout the humans was the same things that were happening, the, the animals managing the farm. And when you look across society today, the parallels that you see for what was written in Animal Farm to what you see in society, anywhere in the US in India or anywhere, it’s this and that’s, it was a transformative book for me and in my own thinking, now, I it was my high school, literature paper book. So I had to English literature. You know, we had to really know this by heart and, and do big essays. So but that’s something that stuck in my mind. More recently, I think. Tom Friedman’s book, The world is flat. The earth is flat world is flat. I think the world is flat earth is flat. I forget which way it goes. Yeah, but how globalization has changed the world and how globalization has made you know, the world flat and away is really exceptional piece of work. It’s it’s much more reflective of the type of work that I do and not the type of things that I teach, but it’s done in a way that’s so accessible. I really like that

And you begin to see that change happening where animals are starting to become like humans. And the same reasons why they throughout the humans was the same things that were happening, the, the animals managing the farm.

Madhav SBSS 49:56
TCI so tada corner, that corner. It’s initiative. You’re the founding director I believe and Ratan Tata from India, the businessman industrial is involved in funding the initiative. One of the questions I want to start out with was like, does Ratan Tata have any specific interest in food and agriculture? Or was it something else that caused the funding for this initiative? So,

“India is, has done so well in being an IT giant and industrial during the emerging economy, with really high growth rates, GDP growth rates, but we still continue to have stubbornly high levels of hunger, rural poverty, malnutrition, etc”

Ratan Tata

Prabhu Pingali 50:24
Ratan Tata is an alumnus of Cornell. I forgot which here is something the 50s, I think, and it, but he studied architecture here at Cornell. And, of course, it’s big industrialist, and well known philanthropist. The Tata trust is the largest philanthropy in India. What Mr. Tata a few, before I arrived here, I think around 2010, had made a gift to Cornell, of $50,000,000.20 $5 million dollars for bringing Indian students from disadvantaged communities to be able to come to Cornell to study. And so full scholarship program, really desirable scholarship for Indian students. And I’ve met many of them really great students that come in on that program. And the other 25 million was to set up this institute. And so this, the Tata Cornell Institute is set up with an endowment of that 25 million. So we operate from the interest of the endowment, and then we raise other money also. And at one point, I, you know, I’ve met Mr. Titan several times, and I try to meet him once a year whenever I go to India. And, but very early on, before I even was, had accepted to do this job. I met with him and I really was curious as to why the focus was on agriculture and nutrition. And, and his answer was that, you know, India is, has done so well in being an IT giant and industrial during the emerging economy, with really high growth rates, GDP growth rates, but we still continue to have stubbornly high levels of hunger, rural poverty, malnutrition, etc. And, and we don’t seem to be tackling those with the same urgency that we are the other sense, where we are accelerating, and other ways in which we can bring new knowledge, new technology, etc, to address these, these chronic problems that we’re facing. And so that’s the kind of the reason behind setting up this institution. And I was at that time at the Gates Foundation. And so when this opportunity came up, I felt this would be a really exciting thing to do. So I came to Cornell in 2013, and help build this institute.

Madhav SBSS 53:35
Excellent. Got it. Got it. I have two questions to follow up on that one is the moonshot. If you were like, what is your moonshot for TCI. And like as a founding director, where do you see this going?

Prabhu Pingali 53:48
DCI by its mission, I think over the next decade, we should be producing several dozen high quality professionals who will be promoting better food systems for India, and more broadly, across the developing world. So our mission is to create that new manpower, new human power that will that will bring agriculture and food back to the center of attention. That is lacking. So today, we already have a stream of people who can’t come back to India and who are now slowly establishing themselves in leading Indian universities and we hope to continue that. So that’s a big part of what we want to do second, bring in new technology, new knowledge to address these chronic problems as we talked about, and third, to really change the thinking within India on what’s good for them agriculture. And how do you make food and agriculture policy? address the needs of better nutrition? That’s our mission.

Madhav SBSS 55:10
Awesome. And one follow up. Second follow up question on that, like, what is the why for you? Like, why do you do this? Like, what? What motivates you to wake up out of your bed every day and jump in? Well go,

Prabhu Pingali 55:24
I’ve been working on for the agricultural systems for the last 40 years. And this job helps me do two things. It helps me synthesize everything I have learned over the last four decades. And look at where do we go from here, in terms of thinking about better food systems into the future. And that moderates a lot. And there’s the transfer transforming food systems book is one way in which I’ve been able to do that. And they have another book coming out over the next year, which continues on this tradition. But second, as I said, My motivation is to to mentor young people in this in this field, and to make make them see how exciting this area have one last question,

Madhav SBSS 56:24
if you were to write a message on a full moon that the whole world can see at some part of the day. What kind of a message would you put on there? Then you said it for me. Food does not come from supermarkets. That’s a beautiful way to say nice way to end it. If people would love to reach out to learn more about your work, where could they go?

Prabhu Pingali 56:52
They can go to or you can just go to Cornell Institute.

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