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Think Globally, Act Globally

by SARA LAJEUNESSE

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Photo: © MOHAMMAD MOIRUZZAMAN/FLICKR/GETTY IMAGES

Through international study and collaboration, faculty members, staff members, and students in the College of Agricultural Sciences are working to solve some of the most pressing problems facing today’s global society.

During the late 1660s, the civilization responsible for building the great Easter Island statues was on the brink of collapse. The Polynesians had first settled on the island sometime around a.d. 900. But, with their rapid population growth came complete deforestation of the island, which led to subsequent losses of raw materials and wild-caught foods as well as decreased crop yields. Starving, the islanders resorted to civil war—and even cannibalism.

The scenario is common throughout history. For example, the Anasazi, the Mayas, and the Vikings suffered similar fates. If, as they say, history repeats itself, who will be next? 

“There are a billion hungry people on earth right now,” says Jonathan Lynch, a Penn State professor of plant nutrition. “I have witnessed some who are so desperate to eat that they set agricultural fields on fire during the dry season in order to smoke out rats, which they then catch and eat. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interest to see people starving like this, and it is in our power to stop it.”

Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, thinks that the problem could get worse before it gets better. “Over the next 30 to 40 years, experts predict a 50 percent increase in the world’s population,” he says. “This, combined with an increase in the standard of living for countries such as India and China, will result in a doubling of the amount of food that must be produced. And all of this will happen with less land, less water, and less energy.”

Despite these problems, there are many reasons to be cautiously optimistic. In his 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond writes, “The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose to stop causing them and start solving them.”

McPheron agrees. “Right now, no one knows how to solve these problems,” he says, “but eventually we will because colleges like ours are looking at the big picture.” Through international study and collaboration, faculty members, staff members, and students in the college are doing exactly that. They are traveling around the world learning from and working with their foreign colleagues to solve some of the most pressing issues facing today’s global society—issues such as environmental degradation and food security.

Planting Seeds of Hope

According to Deanna Behring, director of the college’s international programs office, global agricultural development is a cornerstone of President Obama’s national security and foreign policy agendas. With a growing number of the college’s faculty members integrating international collaborations into their research, Penn State is well positioned to be a partner in this agricultural development. “Our faculty’s research is responsible for bringing substantial amounts of money to the college; money that is used not only to purchase equipment and to pay for travel costs but also to educate students,” she says. “In fact, during the past ten years, the college has received more than $28 million for international research, teaching, and extension programs.”

With a recent $1.5 million research grant and the use of a 50-acre field in South Africa, both provided by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Jonathan Lynch is contributing significantly to the college’s international research program. He believes that the biggest problems in global agriculture are low yields of plants due to drought, reduced soil fertility, and lack of access to fertilizer and irrigation. That’s why he and his colleagues in the United States, Asia, Latin America, and Africa have spent the past 25 years searching for ways to improve crop growth.

Already Lynch has shown that root architecture plays a critical role in determining plant yields under stressful soil conditions. “Correlated with genetic information, root traits can be harnessed to create higher-yielding varieties of important crops like corn and beans,” he says. “We can then give the seeds of plants that do well in poor soils to the farmers who need them.”

Although Lynch’s research is aimed primarily at helping people in impoverished nations, his work also stands to benefit people in developed countries as well. “Fertilizer is the most expensive part of growing corn,” he says, adding that it can also be dangerous to the environment. “More than half of the nitrogen applied to plants through fertilizer leaches into the soil before the roots can get it, and this unused nitrogen ends up in waterways and the atmosphere, where it is a pollutant,” he says. “By growing crops that require less fertilizer and water, American farmers can save millions of dollars while simultaneously reducing their impact on the environment.”

A Common Enemy

Another scientist in the college is also conducting research that will benefit residents of foreign countries as well as those living right here in Pennsylvania. Senior research associate Huaguang Lu developed—and is continuing to improve—a new type of test, called the Dot-ELISA test, that rapidly diagnoses avian influenza, or bird flu.

“Avian influenza is a global disease of humans and animals,” says Lu. “It is important to monitor and control outbreaks in those countries that are affected by the virus in order to prevent it from spreading to other regions or countries.”

Lu added that controlling outbreaks in other countries is ultimately the best way to guard against the virus in the United States. “We successfully used the test to protect Pennsylvania’s farmers during the 2001–2002 avian influenza outbreaks,” he says.

According to Lu, the Dot-ELISA test works quickly, taking only an hour or two to get a result versus the week or more it took using traditional tests. “Speed is important because the avian influenza virus replicates, spreads, and mutates—by natural selection—very rapidly,” he says. In addition, the test is easy to use either in the laboratory or right in the field and it can be used to test large numbers of birds. Plus, the cost is much lower than traditional tests—$0.50 per sample instead of $10.00 per sample.

Lu works with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to help train scientists and establish virology laboratories in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. “The Dot-ELISA test is especially useful in developing countries where there is a lack of good laboratory conditions, diagnostic equipment, and facilities,” he says. “Combined with proper biosecurity, this technology can help prevent a localized outbreak from becoming a dangerous pandemic.”

Global Pollination

While Lu has been helping save Pennsylvania’s poultry from a pandemic, Christina Grozinger, associate professor of entomology, is working to rescue the state’s pollinating insects. According to Grozinger, pollinator populations are declining worldwide, with some species even going extinct. “This is dangerous because global food production—particularly of fruits, vegetables, and nuts—depends on pollinators,” she says, adding that the extent of pollinator population losses was not fully understood until researchers from multiple countries began discussing these issues. “Now there are collaborative international efforts to look for common trends and causes and to share ideas about mitigating these problems,” she says.

To bring scientists together from around the world to discuss the problem, Grozinger helped organize the first International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Policy, and Health. The conference was held at Penn State in 2010 and was hosted by Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research, of which Grozinger is the director. “The conference brought together more than 200 people from 14 countries to discuss pollinator decline,” she says. “Clearly, there is a great deal of interest in working together on a global scale.”

Grozinger is working with a team of collaborators at Penn State and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi to study the health of populations of honey bees in Kenya. One of the team members, Maryann Frazier, an extension specialist in entomology, is teaching regional beekeeping groups about sustainable management practices. “Many of the agricultural and social issues we are facing are global, and an international perspective is not only beneficial but crucial to understanding and addressing these problems,” says Grozinger.

According to McPheron, not only are international collaborations necessary because of the global nature of many of the research questions, but they also are important because they facilitate discourse that stems from a variety of viewpoints. “By collaborating with researchers in other countries—not just developing countries but all countries—our faculty members improve their research because they are exposed to new ideas and opportunities,” he says. 

“In addition,” he added, “some of our faculty members haven’t had the opportunity to travel much in their lives and international research gives them a new perspective, which they often incorporate into their classes in various ways.”

Out of Africa

A new perspective is precisely what students gain when they travel abroad as well. “Once a student visits a foreign country, he or she is forever changed,” says Behring. “Students often return home from such trips with the understanding that they have a lot, they know a lot, and they can make a difference.”

Behring notes that only one undergraduate student in the college studied abroad in 2000, but that she expects 194 students to study abroad in 2011. “Most of these students are given some form of financial assistance through one of the college’s five endowed study-abroad scholarships totaling around $500,000,” she says.
    Carrie Gaynor and Jackie Jeffery

(L-R) Carrie Gaynor (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Zoology) and Jackie Jeffery '11 WFS, conducted research in one of Kenya's wildlife sanctuaries. Using GPS and compass, they walked transects through the bush everyday looking for and collecting data on woldlife and livestock.  (Photo supplied by Jackie Jeffery)

 

Jackie Jeffery (’11) recently benefited from one such travel scholarship. A wildlife and fisheries science major who graduated last spring, Jeffery traveled to Tanzania and Kenya during the fall 2010 semester with the School for Field Studies, a national program that combines hands-on environmental studies with scientific research to develop sustainable solutions to critical environmental problems. 

“Before visiting Kenya I thought that if people wanted to make a difference in the world, they would have to bring about big changes,” says Jeffery.  “I see now that every little effort can make a difference. In Swahili they say, ‘kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba,’ which means ‘little by little the cup is filled.’ I live by that now.”

While in Kenya, Jeffery took courses on wildlife management, environmental policy, and Swahili. She also went on field trips to places like national parks, where she and her classmates practiced the techniques they had learned in the classroom—for example, counting all the large mammals they saw in order to calculate species density. On one such expedition, Jeffery took a break from the work and later described the moment in her blog:

I lay down on a soft bench and looked out for miles over Tarangire. The land was dry and golden with green and brown trees poking up everywhere. Off to one side the river zigzagged into the distance. There were elephants grazing between the trees and crossing gracefully over the river, tiny babies at the heels of their mothers. Gazelles and dik diks moved among them as well as warthogs and ostriches. I closed my eyes and soaked up the moment. At peace. In Africa.

Jeffery also visited local villages as part of the School for Field Studies program. The purpose of one of those trips was to build a concrete floor and some playground equipment for a small orphanage in Rhotia, Tanzania. “As soon as we arrived at the orphanage, we were surrounded by kids,” says Jeffery. “All they wanted to do was to be held and to give hugs and kisses. A lot of them had lost their parents to AIDS. They really don’t have a chance of being adopted, so the workers at the orphanage are just looking for people to sponsor them."

Jeffery notes that studying abroad allowed her to experience a completely different lifestyle and gave her a new perspective within her field of study. “These things just were not possible for me in my tiny corner of Pennsylvania,” she says. 

The experience also will help her achieve her career goal of becoming a wildlife manager focusing specifically on large cats and endangered species. “I would love to have a hand in reintroducing wildlife where it has been lost and in correcting natural migration routes that have been severely disturbed by human actions,” she says. “By personally speaking with Maasai people and by viewing the human–wildlife conflicts with my own eyes, I have a better understanding of what needs to be done and what role I can play in solving current environmental issues.”

Lessons in Natural Histories and Disasters

Andrew PugliaMeanwhile, Andrew Puglia (’11), a recent Penn State graduate who majored in community, environment, and development, spent the fall 2010 semester studying in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies program. There, he took courses on sustainable development, economics and ethics, and language and culture. He also attended field trips to places like wind and coffee farms to see how the topics he was learning about in the classroom manifest in the real world.

For example, he spent a week in Nicaragua comparing the country’s environmental issues and laws to those of Costa Rica. “We visited Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua,” he says. “For the most part, the island has not been touched by tourism, so it is very pristine. But we did see the effects of humans on the lake itself, which is being invaded by nonnative species of tilapia fish."

Puglia says that as a student studying environmental issues, it is important for him not only to understand the condition of our planet but also to observe the most pressing development issues in person. “In Costa Rica, I acquired such an incredible wealth of information,” he says. “I didn’t read it in a book. I saw it firsthand. I visited the farms and the national parks. I met the people. I experienced the good and the bad.”

The good and the bad indeed. Puglia witnessed both during his semester break, when he and a few of his classmates set out to climb the highest peak in Costa Rica, named Chirripó, or “land of enchanted waters.” It was a rainy day and the trail was slippery, but the group hiked for nine long hours through rainforest, cloud forest, and tundra ecosystems before arriving at the mountain’s base camp. The next day, they climbed for another two hours, finally reaching the top. On a clear day, both the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans are supposedly visible from Chirripó, but the rain clouds permitted Puglia and his friends only a glimpse of the surrounding mountains.

After spending a second night at the base camp, the group descended the mountain. The heavy rain drummed in their ears and soaked their clothes and shoes. At the bottom, they sought shelter in a hostel. That’s when they heard the news that the relentless rain had caused landslides that buried homes, knocked down bridges, and destroyed roads, including the one leading back to campus. With more than 20 people dead, Costa Rica had declared a national emergency.

Puglia and his friends eventually made it back to campus, but not without witnessing much of the devastation. “It was a tragedy to see the destruction of the landslides to the country and its people,” says Puglia. “It made me thankful for the fortunes I am granted each day and made me see the common things each person looks for to fulfill the sacred days we have. Seeing those commonalities across cultures is a huge aspect of traveling. My dad always said that if everyone had a full passport, the world would be a different place. And he was right.”

Looking to the Future

Although Puglia still hasn’t decided on a specific career to pursue, he says he wants to continue to travel, experience, and learn about the different ways people are trying to live in harmony with their environment. But, no matter what career Puglia ultimately chooses, his study-abroad experience will help him succeed.

McPheron knows full well the benefits that a study-abroad experience can bring to students who are applying for jobs. “I have had conversations with many of the companies and agencies that employ our students,” he says. “They are looking for employees who understand global culture. We can’t prepare students for these careers if we don’t train them to think about issues from a global perspective and encourage them to study abroad.”

McPheron adds that the future of our species depends on the abilities of people, including students and faculty members at Penn State, to come up with solutions to our global problems. “Whether we are attracted to these types of challenges through a scientific interest, a desire to help humankind for the greater good, a chance to develop new markets, or a more self-focused motivation to provide a stable world for our own children and grandchildren is of little consequence,” says McPheron. “That we step up to play a role in the future is the key. The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities.”

Photo: Steve Williams

College Launches Ag2Africa

istock-000011470561small.jpgThe College of Agricultural Sciences has been actively involved in agricultural issues in Africa for more than 30 years, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it launched a program to provide a cohesive strategy for and coordination of its efforts on the continent. Called Ag2Africa, the program’s goals are to improve food and economic security and boost sustainable agricultural development in Africa through research, extension, and education.

According to Deanna Behring, director of the college’s international programs office, “Through the individual endeavors of its faculty members, staff members, and students, the college already had the experience, energy, and competency to make a difference. But now, through the Ag2Africa program, we can make an even bigger impact by pulling together and working with the sum of these individual parts.”

In particular, the program is promoting sustainable livelihoods among Africans by supporting faculty members in the study and implementation of new technologies that address challenges such as drought, poor soil fertility, pest damage, and low crop yields. The program is also enhancing human resource capacity in Africa by helping to train and develop leaders, scientists, and educators who can solve local problems. In addition, the program is building extension and outreach programs so that the latest and best scientific information can be translated into practices in the field. In both the United States and Africa, the program is providing service-learning opportunities for students, with the goal that the students will apply what they’ve learned and become global citizens.

“Our hope is that the Ag2Africa program will expand international activities in the college, promote cross-disciplinary efforts to tackle critical issues of African agricultural development, and put the college and the University at the forefront of the fight against global hunger and food insecurity,” said Thomas Gill, the program’s director. “Already it has helped our students and faculty members seek and identify new potential opportunities to engage with our African partners, and it will continue to expand these opportunities as interest increases further.”

Illustration: iSTOCKPHOTO.COM

New Options for Students

International Agriculture Minor for Undergraduates

istock-000006175043large.jpgEmployers increasingly expect graduates to be knowledgeable about international development and globalization issues and to have the skills necessary to work with diverse cultures. Now, with more students than ever earning a minor in international agriculture, Penn State’s graduates are meeting the challenge.

According to Tom Gill, assistant director of international programs who recently became the program adviser of the college’s international agriculture minor, the number of students enrolled in the minor has increased; nine students graduated in the minor in 2011, but around 50 students will graduate in 2013. Because the minor can be paired with any undergraduate major, the students are coming from all over the University. “Our students know how interconnected the world is these days and they want to be a part of it,” says Gill.

The goal of the minor is to give students an opportunity to explore the interrelationships and interdependency of the world’s food and fiber systems. For example, the students who took the spring 2011 “Global Seminar” course videoconferenced with classes from around the world to debate the plight of the bluefin tuna, an animal whose stocks have plummeted due to overfishing. Each semester students take on a different case, and each class is required to take a different stance regarding the economic, scientific, and technological aspects of the case.

“So many of the issues that we face today are global in nature, and many of them are related to agriculture and food security (think global warming and groundwater supplies, for instance),” says Gill. “The international agriculture minor is a perfect way to supplement students’ educations with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in a global society.”

International Development and Agriculture: A Dual Degree for Graduate Students

The International Development and Agriculture program offers graduate students the opportunity to develop expertise in international development while concurrently achieving a graduate degree in their primary discipline. The dual-title degree will be available to both masters and doctoral students in a range of programs.

Students will have the opportunity to learn and develop skills through interdisciplinary course work in core subjects as well as a broad range of electives to match their interests.

In addition, they’ll also acquire international experience though a unique course: the International Agriculture and Development seminar (INTAD 820). The course will focus on faculty interests and expertise on a variety of global interests. The residential portion of the course will be followed by an overseas experiential learning opportunity introducing students to places and issues in the foreseeable future—food security, food safety, economic development, and climate change.

Illustration: iSTOCKPHOTO.COM