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Samarthia Thankappan researches food systems, and is a senior lecturer in Human Geography. In addition to teaching 1st-Year students, she runs a popular 2nd-Year module called Food, Space, Culture and Society.

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I was a very inquisitive child

At times, I used to annoy my parents and teachers with questions like, “Why are leaves green? Why is the sky blue?”

Growing up in India, my dream was to be a doctor, but I was scared of blood, so decided to become a 'plant doctor'. I did my undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences. While studying for a Masters in agronomy, I became more aware of social and environmental problems around me. It was then that I decided to focus my career on these issues.

Photo credit: Rajarshi MITRA / CC BY

Food provision in the changing climate

After completing my PhD at Aberystwyth, I carried out EU-funded research into the food systems approach, which solidified my passion for the food sector. I joined the University of York as a lecturer in Human Geography, and have continued my research into food systems.

As part of my research, I've seen the struggle farmers face day-to-day from climate change, as well as insect and disease infestations. Farmers can't mitigate climate change or other external events, but they use their own indigenous knowledge and practices to adapt to these constant changes.

Environmental and societal impact

The other strand of my research is the consumption side, the role of big agri-food business, and how this impacts society and the environment.

Changes to global diet have major impacts across the world's poorer regions. For example, in Peru, every family used to grow and eat quinoa: it was the staple food. But now, it's exported to richer countries like the UK, and is no longer affordable for indigenous populations.

Thailand is a big producer of pork and chicken meat. This had led to vast forest clearances on high ground to accommodate maize grown as animal feed. This is big business, yet farmers get little in return. After harvests, they have little choice but to burn the stubble to clear the land. The smoke settles in the valley, and becomes a serious respiratory problem for many elderly and young.

Photo credit: mattmangum / CC BY

Our supportive community

I was delighted to receive the Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Award for teaching excellence. However, I find it just as satisfying when students become more conscious of sustainable development, or they make changes to their habits - for example, becoming a vegetarian - because of what they have learned during their time with us.

In Environment and Geography, we provide opportunities for your personal development. You'll learn about a wide range of global issues. In addition to traditional teaching, you can go to regular lunchtime seminars with renowned speakers from around the UK. There are also public lectures, and the annual YorkTalks, which highlight research being carried out across the University - much of it related to climate change and social issues.

You'll find that staff are friendly and easy to approach. That's what students tell us, so I think that's a great reflection on our efforts to create a community feeling.