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PhD geography & planning candidate goes public with concerns about food waste

Tammara Soma named one of the 25 finalists in research storytelling contest

Photo of Tammara Soma in a U of T cafeteria -- she is standing in front of a baskets of bananas, oranges and apples

Tammara Soma is an Arts & Science PhD candidate in the Department of Geography & Planning and a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholar. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

If you don’t understand why food waste is a growing concern in developing countries, Tammara Soma can explain it to you in three minutes.

Soma, an Arts & Science PhD candidate in the Department of Geography & Planning and a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholar, believes academics who want to have an impact on policy must find a means of disseminating their research to legislators and the general public.

She’s not spouting platitudes: Soma entered the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) 2017 Storytellers contest, which requires entrants to explain their research in a three-minute video or a 300-word essay. She chose the video.

“Statistics show that 82 per cent of peer review articles aren’t even cited once, so we need to find diverse methods to communicate our research,” Soma said. “That’s why this competition is important. It’s really, really important for the academic community to learn to use visual media, social media and other means if they really want to make a difference.”

Soma has spread the word  about food waste in other ways as well. Her research has recently been featured in the Toronto Star, Metro News, TVO and U of T Magazine and she writes for the Huffington Post. If she is chosen one of the top 25 entrants in the SSHRC competition, she’ll undoubtedly get more coverage of her work.

“If you’re trying to influence policy, think about how few policy makers pick up 25-page journal articles,” Soma said. “I applaud SSHRC for doing this. Rewarding academics for public engagement is very important.”

The 25 finalists in the SSHRC Storytelling competition receive $3,000 apiece. The top five from the group will be selected on May 29 during a Storytellers Showcase at the Congress of the Social Sciences & Humanities conference and they will receive media training and an opportunity to speak about their research publicly.

Meanwhile, Soma is happy to discuss her research, which focuses on food wasted in her native Indonesia, the world’s fifth most populous country. Prior to commencing her PhD, Soma was an urban food systems planner, focusing largely on means of production and distribution, such as urban agriculture and the local food movement, as ways of making cities more resilient.

“In 2010, it came out that Canada wasted $27 billion of food and a lightbulb came on,” said Soma, who has an MSc in food systems planning. “You have poverty on one side and over-consumption on the other. I wanted to see how we could understand it as a systemic problem.”

In doing research on developing countries, she discovered that food loss and waste were viewed as agricultural issues and that the proposed solutions were largely technical: machine farming and GPS-based irrigation, for example. However, as Indonesia became increasingly urban, standard urban usage patterns and issues took hold, with consequences for the entire population.

“No one was talking about what the modern consumption pattern was doing to both lower-income and higher-income people,” Soma said, and she took up the challenge. “Indonesia used to be a ‘buy today, eat today’ culture. People would simply bury the food scraps, but you can’t do that with packaged goods.”

Soma conducted a qualitative study of 21 households at varying income levels and surveyed 323 households about their food consumption and food wasting practices. Modernization has led to a host of new problems that aren’t healthy for either the population or the environment, she discovered. Food waste is going to open dumps, where methane gas is a danger, as is dengue fever, since plastic collects water and breeds mosquitoes. Garbage is overflowing and spreading to farm fields, and the small mobile food vendors who sold produce door-to-door are being forced to look for new ways of earning a living.

“Our consumption patterns are killing people,” Soma said, noting that the paving of farmlands because of rapid urbanization is a worldwide concern. “I’m seeking a major shift in the way we look at food. Modern cities are so dependent on imported food and packaged food. We need strong, resilient cities that can feed themselves, and we need policymakers to think about it.”

Watch Tammara Soma’s three-minute video:

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