Meet affiliated faculty Milan Shrestha

In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Milan Shrestha, Senior Global Futures Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory; Senior Lecturer in the School of Sustainability, College of Global Futures.

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

I became interested in food systems issues because my family background is in smallholder agriculture and my undergraduate degree is in agricultural sciences. However, my knowledge of agricultural and food systems issues was largely technical and one-dimensional, as much of what I was learning was based on the green-revolution and had no applicability or relevance to mountain areas where the socio-ecological realities were different from the plains. 

I was familiar with struggles and challenges of smallholders in Nepal (my native country) and other mountain regions, but was able to develop a holistic and critical look at the social dimensions of smallholder agriculture and food systems when I started graduate school. It was during grad school when I became more interested in cross-cultural and comparative perspectives on agriculture and food systems, particularly in the role of the indigenous technical knowledge (or broadly defined as ethnoecology) and food sovereignty issues. These allowed me to understand how people’s shared knowledge and rules about the plants, crops, and their immediate surroundings influence and define the socio-cultural dimensions of their food systems. In other words, my focus transitioned from technical production oriented agriculture to the social and cultural dimensions of the agriculture and food systems. 

Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation. 

I have a long-standing research focus on the socio-cultural intersections of agriculture and food systems. Within the broadly defined climate-water-agriculture nexus framework, I currently have two research projects that are connected with food systems transformation. I have been closely studying mountain agriculture and food systems in the Himalayas for the last two decades, particularly how the shared cultural knowledge and rules govern and influence farmers’ decisions of agricultural land-use, livelihoods, and common pool resources. This research is very connected with the future of mountain agriculture. 

More recently, within urban contexts, I’ve been studying the loss of fertile agricultural land and open space to urban built-areas here in Phoenix and South Asia. This new phenomenon is going to create more problems than solutions, as urban areas are unable to produce enough food supply for themselves and they are also losing important ecosystem services provided by agriculture and open spaces. Losing agricultural lands creates more pressure for food production elsewhere since urban areas aren’t capable of creating enough food for themselves, and the ecosystem structure and function of the area is completely altered. 

What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about? 

I am excited about the renewed interest in sustainable agriculture, especially triggered by reflexive consciousness among the youth about where our foods come from. Despite the bad news related to everything wrong with the current food systems, this gives me a lot of optimism and hope for the future. I believe this has led to a strong interest in, and a growing recognition of, the value of food sovereignty and agrobiodiversity, which foster placed-based, unique food/culinary traditions that are opposite of homogenized, fast-food cultures.
I get excited thinking about this idea because the renewed interest and reflexive consciousness will help establish the rightful place for indigenous knowledge, regenerative agriculture, smallholders, and the bioregional economy that are based on life and place connection. It’s like a cascading effect: once people are more mindful about where their food comes from, companies will become more transparent, and ultimately food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture ideas will transform our food system. 

What’s your go-to weeknight meal?

Both my wife and I love to cook real foods as much as we can and we love varieties, including Nepali, Thai, Szechuan, Italian and some Mediterranean. For busy weeknights, my wife and I generally make a stir-fry with sautéed vegetables and a small portion of protein. We usually freeze grilled chicken and Nepali dumplings that we made on the weekends, which come handy for weeknights. We are thankful that we have fairly good access to multicultural food traditions. 

Jane Coghlan