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Tackling ‘Wicked’ Food Security Issues: Experiences from the US Borlaug Food Security Summer Institute

Food insecurity, when people do not have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, is one of the worst forms of human suffering. The stakes for ensuring a food-secure world are already high and rising. By 2050, the world needs to accommodate an additional 2.5 billion people, most of the growth will take place in small and medium-sized cities in Asia and Africa. Modern agriculture must face these challenges and young scientists and educators must be prepared for it. It is a ‘wicked’ problem.

The 2017 U.S Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security at Purdue took place during July 4-17 bringing together 40 graduate students from all over the USA interested in areas of global food security. I was fortunate enough to be one of the forty who was selected to represent the Borlaug’s vision of a world without hunger.

In this two-week intensive course, I learned a holistic approach to understanding and addressing world food insecurity issues, and explored how social, economic, and political factors impact decision-making and can improve or compromise the biogeochemical interactions as they pertain to food production. Also, the complex, interrelated dynamics of this challenge was examined, which plays out on a global scale while manifesting differently in locality-specific conditions. Through various lectures, practicums and case studies, we also explored the factors that cause food insecurity (including climate, socio-economic disparities, and political). The module culminated with a summative assignment where participants were divided into groups and assigned a country to design an innovative food security project utilizing the concepts and approach learned during the Institute.

The Institute is a great place to understand the complexity of issues and bridge disciplinary boundaries for a better understanding of food security and insecurity. Also, the mix of participants from both US and outside made the experience enriching. One day, I was discussing with a fellow participant about the economic status of our countries. As both of us were from developing nations, we started talking about the current status, the underdevelopment and other various social and economic issues impeding the countries’ development. He was very passionate about his country and wasn’t pleased to be bracketed as a ‘developing nation’. “I dislike the term ‘developing world’ because it assumes a hierarchy between countries, painting a picture of western societies as ideal. Also, this developed-developing relationship replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship. For example, the present-day development industry spends billions of dollars, but very little gets achieved. Therefore, I believe that things need to be changed and I will do my best to change them.” It was very apparent in his eyes how much he loves his country and how badly he wants his country out from that ‘developing nation’ tag.

While I was impressed with all the speakers, I must admit that Dr. Gebisa Ejeta stood out for me. Recipient of 2009 World Food Prize, he is the Director of Center for Global Food Security and also holds the position of Distinguished Professor at Purdue University.

His two sessions on Global food security and Purpose-driven research were engaging, thought-provoking and inspirational, where he presented real-world, actionable content and strategies on how things can be changed. “Everything you do should be driven by a purpose` and “It’s (food security or agriculture research) a marathon, not a sprint” are two of the quotes from him which I believe I am taking with me wherever I go. For a man who so many admire and his many achievements, how humbly and submissively he carries himself was a great inspiration personally.

While I expected my experience in the institute to be exciting, I did not fully grasp how much the opportunity would positively impact me until I actually arrived and began interacting with professors, fellow participants, and speakers. As we were driving back to Penn State, Christian (a fellow participant) and I reflected on our experiences from the Institute. We were unified in admitting how the two-weeks have triggered an internal transformation. Being immersed in a new thought process, different ideas and diverse companions have enriched our minds. Leaving Purdue and saying goodbye to the people I got to know for those two of weeks was very sad and difficult. Honestly, I wished the program lasted longer.

Lastly, the ‘wicked problem’ issue. Unfortunately, even after two-weeks of an intensive course on food security, I don’t think that I am able properly to explain or come up with a solution. As one of the speakers rightly said, “Food security is a wicked problem. It is almost impossible to solve considering its size, scale, and complex interconnections”.



Note: This post was first published in Pennsylvania State University INTAD website

Tomato Ebola or Tuta absoluta; an insect plaguing tomato farms around the globe

Normally, we don’t care much about insects, and it makes sense. As a good friend of mine once said when I told him that I work in entomology, “Why on earth should I care about tiny insects when I have hundreds of other big issues I encounter daily?”

But insects are important to everyone. Take for example Tuta absoluta, also known as the South American tomato leafminer. A moth no bigger than an eye lash, this pest of tomatoes is making major headlines. When it invaded Nigeria first during early 2016, it was referred to as “Tomato Ebola” because it destroyed tomatoes so quickly and thoroughly – the country lost 80% of its total crop. The crisis resulted in a 400% price hike of tomatoes and a 200-million tomato processing factory was forced to shut down. Moreover, the situation was so serious that the government declared a state of emergency. I would like to say that this was a one-off example, but that is sadly not the case.

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Feeling like a Hokie at Bugfest


IPM Innovation Lab Director Muni Muniappan shows one of the parents  spidermites through the microscope.

As an international program funded by USAID that works in countries as far away as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Tanzania, and Vietnam, sometimes it can be hard for us at the Integrated Pest Management Innovation lab to feel as though we’re a part of Virginia Tech, the land grant university where we are located.

That’s why it’s important for us to participate in events like the Hokie Bugfest, a celebration of all things insect that took place at the Inn at Virginia Tech on October 15. With over 7,000 child and parent participants, Bugfest was a great opportunity for the Hokie community to come together over their fascination with, love for, or possibly fear of insects. Continue reading »

Returning to Penn State and the United States

This is how I was where I first lived in the United States in 2011 – lean and young.

After taking few years off, I am back at my alma mater– Penn State. I still have vivid memories of when I first landed in this country back in August of 2011 to get my master’s from Penn State. I had a great deal of anxiety and excitement as it was my first time abroad. Until then, I had never been away from my country and grew up with people who spoke my language and looked like me. Continue reading »