In Conversation: Global Food Fellow Jacob Wolf-Sorokin ’16 on Sustainable Farming in Nepal

December 15, 2014

Around the world—that’s where the Yale Sustainable Food Program (YSFP) has set its sights with the new Global Food Fellowship Award, which allows Yale undergraduate and graduate students to pursue hands-on experiences in food and agriculture beyond the Yale campus.

Four students engaged in innovative study, research, or internship projects this past summer as Global Food Fellows, becoming the program’s inaugural class.

 “For a lot of our students, working at Yale’s farms provides a deep sense of connection—and a realization that these connections extend far beyond our few acres,” says Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program. “The Global Food Fellowship lets our students take the natural next step; seeing first hand how diverse our challenges are, but more importantly, how many solutions are out there. They return with a sense of where they fit into it all.”

The YSFP aims to shape a new generation of “food literate leaders,” systems thinkers who are equipped to envision and implement change in problem-rich environments. Fellows explore a broad range of solutions, from building better policy in the United States, to community nutrition education in Bolivia, to market access for farmers in Peru. 

“There is no set path to innovative food careers, so finding and funding these essential professional development opportunities can feel daunting,” explains Jacqueline Lewin, programs manager for international and professional experience at YSFP. “We’re thrilled to offer students this glimpse at what’s ahead of them; a giant web of opportunity – a meeting place of problems and pleasures that young leaders need to see, experience and study.”

One of the inaugural recipients, Jacob Wolf-Sorokin ’16, recently met with the Yale Office of International Affairs to discuss how he built upon his academic interests as a Global Food Fellow in Nepal this summer. 

What do you study/do on campus?

I’m a junior in Calhoun College majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics. I’m interested in how humans can allocate natural resources in a way that sustains earth’s growing population without continuing to cause irreversible environmental harms. I believe that this requires reexamining rural life and urbanization and rethinking where and how populations live. Outside the classroom, I spend my time on campus as a Culinary Events Manager at the Yale Sustainable Food Program, working on various political and advocacy projects, coordinating the Community Based Learning program at Dwight Hall and leading Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips (FOOT).

Tell me about your internship in Nepal this summer.

This summer I interned at an NGO based in Kathmandu, Nepal known as ANSAB (Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources). I helped create and implement environmentally sensitive development projects in village communities in Nepal’s Himalayas. ANSAB was piloting an innovative ecosystem services certification program called ForCES (Forest Certification for Ecosystem Services) with the goal of empowering rural communities to practice sustainable, economically viable agriculture. With ForCES, villages could create alternative income generating opportunities with environmental and social benefits, such as ecotourism sites and carbon sequestration areas.

The project required all community members—including women, landless individuals and members of low caste groups— to give their “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” before the community was certified, to ensure all retained a voice in their community’s development. That process can be a difficult and time-consuming task; all villagers must be educated in the details of the ForCES program. To this end, I produced a guide explaining the general concept of ecosystem services, the reasons to certify, and detailed the certification process. ANSAB intends to use it to encourage community forest user groups to seek ecosystem services certification, therefore increasing the sustainability of their agriculture and expanding the economic potential of their products. It will also be used to educate community members so they can give their free, prior and informed consent.

How did you come up with the idea?       

The Fellowship allowed me to pursue a practical project that complemented my academic interests. I’m intrigued by how economic and political forces, and global systems of agriculture, affect land and resource management. Nepal proved to be a particularly engaging area to work, because as we in America are returning to the idea of farming locally, Nepal’s farming communities are integrating more tightly with urban and international economies. The pressure to modernize threatens the Nepali approach to the environment, which is rooted in small scale, local interventions—and the notion that human fate and the environment are directly tied.

When I shared my interests and aspirations for the summer with my sophomore advisor last year, he recommended that I consider seeking an internship at ANSAB. The executive director, Bhishma Subedi ’91 M.F.S, was very receptive and worked with me to design a suitable internship. So I applied to, and received support from, the Global Food Fellowship, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for International Summer Travel at the MacMillan Center. The experience extended my curricular interests out to the real world, and built upon what I learned as an intern at the Yale Farm.

What is your greatest takeaway from the experience?

While in Nepal, the interconnectedness of our global economic system became clear. As part of my internship, I interviewed forest users at a community-owned wintergreen processing enterprise in the Napkeyen Mara. (Wintergreen is an ingredient found in perfume and fragrances popular in Europe and the US.) Most of the forest users had fields that they farmed at home, but they participated in the enterprise to earn extra money. This supplemental income allowed them to continue practicing traditional subsistence agriculture, instead of resorting to pesticides and potentially harmful techniques.

I saw how preserving Nepal’s tradition of sustainable interaction with nature in the face of development is extremely important, both in terms of mitigating climate change and to the future viability of these rural communities.

What would you say to other students considering an internship abroad?

Planning an internship abroad can be a challenging experience, but I can honestly say that the sixty days I spent in Nepal last summer were some of the most profoundly meaningful and thought-provoking days of my life. Observing the ways in which people live so differently, but retain similar aims of happiness, success and fulfillment proved to be illuminating. Yet, I wouldn’t have gained a new perspective on life, sustainable agriculture, or the global economy, had I not been willing to ask for advice and say, at times, “I don’t know.” Advice from mentors, staff and fellow students is extremely valuable. It can help make the difficult and often stressful endeavor of planning an internship abroad more manageable and will ultimately make the experience more worthwhile.

To read more about Jacob’s experience in Nepal, visit the YSFP Blog.

To learn more about Yale Sustainable Food Program and the Global Food Fellowship, visit sustainablefood.yale.edu/global-food-fellows-program.