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Alumni Profile: Anthony J. Gilbert '95 Agricultural Econ and Rural Sociology

Posted: June 13, 2016

Anthony J. Gilbert is an agricultural attaché for the Foreign Agricultural Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The ‘95 Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology grad helps to spread U.S. land-grant university knowledge and serve the best interests of U.S. agriculture overseas.

For the past four years, Anthony J. Gilbert has been on the front line of agricultural diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, implementing trade policy and developing market promotion opportunities for U.S. agricultural exports. These efforts include collaboration with land grant universities to build Colombian agricultural and institutional capacity that advances key industries at home and abroad.

“Agricultural exports are extremely important to the U.S. economy,” Anthony says. “This is a key trade sector with a significant trade surplus.” Every $1 billion in agricultural exports generates close to 8,000 jobs in the United States, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. And the implementation and sharing of innovative research and science-based farming techniques from land grant universities helps to build strong agricultural institutions and industries around the world.

In Colombia, there is a particular opportunity to grow and expand farming of cacao, or cocoa (the raw material for chocolate). Anthony’s office at the Foreign Agricultural Service recently signed a $5 million agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development to deliver USDA and land grant university intellectual capacity to Colombia with the goal of helping the country become a major producer and exporter of cocoa beans.

By investing in Colombian cacao production, USDA is contributing to the success of both nations. The United States is a significant importer of cocoa beans and the U.S. chocolate and confectionary industries are major buyers of U.S. agricultural products, such as dairy and nuts. Having a reliable source and supply chain of cacao in nearby South America helps the United States avoid problems that could arise from sourcing primarily West African cocoa beans.

Additionally, Colombia is in the process of finalizing an historical peace agreement to end more than 50 years of violent communist insurgent conflict. Rural development is a key pillar of the peace agreement and supporting cacao production in post-conflict regions of Colombia will enable rural economic stability and empower agricultural livelihoods.

In the spring of 2016, Anthony accompanied 10 Colombians representing cacao researchers and farmers at the 30th annual Frontiers in Science and Technology for Cacao Quality, Productivity and Sustainability, a symposium hosted by the Penn State Endowed Program in the Molecular Biology for Cacao. The symposium focuses on topics related to enhanced production and quality of cocoa and the overall goal of a sustainable cocoa supply chain future. Senior Scientist and Professor of Horticulture Siela Maximova and Professor of Plant Molecular Biology Mark Guiltinan are leaders in cacao research at Penn State.

“Their expertise has made them invaluable contributors to cacao research initiatives globally, which is why the Foreign Agricultural Service is excited to partner with Siela and Mark in Colombia,” Anthony says.

In addition to the conference, Anthony spent some time at Penn State reflecting on his experiences as an undergraduate, the many turns his career path has taken, and what the future may hold. “I chose the Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology major because I saw a flier in the Armsby Building that said ‘Ag Economists needed for overseas work,’” he remembers. “That’s how I got involved with the Peace Corps.”

After graduation, an internship with the Foreign Agricultural Service in Washington, D.C., exposed Anthony to the career opportunities of agricultural diplomacy with USDA. Upon completing his internship, he left the Foreign Agricultural Service for three years to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and Bolivia, eventually returning to the United States for a job with the Environmental Protection Agency, conducting economic analyses on the impacts of pesticide regulations. But after seven years with EPA, he wasn’t ready to give up his ambition of becoming an agricultural diplomat overseas. He completed his master’s degree at the London School of Economics in 2005 and soon after went back to work for the Foreign Agricultural Service, including a tense year in Afghanistan in 2010.

Anthony is completing his four-year tour in Colombia this summer. In the fall of 2016, he will be moving with his wife and three-year-old child to Venezuela to head the Foreign Agricultural Service post in Caracas.

The importance of the work being done by the Foreign Agricultural Service outweighs the occasional stress of moving and adapting to new places, Anthony says. “USDA officials overseas are opening doors and paving the way to expand opportunities for U.S. farmers.”

The time is ripe to pursue a career in agriculture abroad with USDA, he suggests, because baby boomers are retiring and leaving behind many opportunities at these organizations. “I would suggest if you have an interest in international issues and languages, and like agriculture and the potential that agricultural offers in terms of stimulating your career, either here or overseas, please come and work for the Foreign Agricultural Service.”