Fields of snow peas encompass Guatemala’s mountainous landscape. Lush and green, these non-native crops are the manifestation of hours of labor by indigenous farmers, who grow the produce for export.

Unfortunately for the farmers, says Nicholas Copeland, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Sociology, these export crops are chemically intensive to produce, as purchasing specifications require no blemishes on the vegetable or fruit. Many of the farmers have taken on debt to purchase costly pesticides and fertilizers, expenses that ultimately forced many to sell their property.

Copeland believes there’s a better way: Farmers can sustain themselves, their communities, and urban populations in an ecologically sound way that works in harmony with their worldviews.

“Food security is making sure you have enough food or calories to survive,” Copeland says. “Food sovereignty involves the ability of people to produce food and to control what they produce, how they produce it, and how they sell it.”

Using a Core Fulbright Scholar Program grant, Copeland is expanding a multiyear research project to study sustainable food programs in Guatemala. In addition to examining the impact of cash crops, Copeland looks at alternative farming practices, such as agroecology, which is ecological agriculture focused on domestic consumption.

“Crop diversification is a huge part of agroecological gardens—and a central component of food sovereignty for Guatemalan farmers,” he says. “These gardens aren’t on large parcels of land, but people are able to grow coffee, fruits, and vegetables that are a staple in their diet. I’m hoping this research will both highlight models of success and encourage additional funding of them.”