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Students trek deep into the Amazon, scale the Andes to learn about global food security

Emily Burke’s “aha” moment came under a giant kapok tree that towered over the blanket of green that envelopes the Ecuadorian rainforest.

amazon andesIt was there, as a Quechuan guide spoke about how deforestation has changed the way his family survives in the jungle, that Burke fully appreciated why she flew south of the equator this summer to study food security.

“It made me feel like I’m learning about things that are important to the future of our world,” said Burke, a rising junior from Vienna, Virginia, who is double majoring in agricultural and applied economics andenvironmental policy and planning. “Feeding the world is one of the biggest challenges of the next 20 years. I wanted to get a first-hand experience to find out how we are going to do that.”

But it was more than that for the group of students from the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who spent two weeks in Ecuador trekking in the Amazon, scaling the Andes, and exploring the Galapagos. It was a chance to learn how they could better understand food security and production challenges and use agriculture as a means to help the world.

“I wanted to study food and agriculture through an international lens because I believe that so many of the problems we have — poverty, lack of education, crime — can be traced back to a lack of access to food,” said Sarah Bateman, a rising senior from Cambridge, New York, who is majoring in crop and soil environmental sciences with an option in international agriculture and  a minor in global food security health. “You cannot set out to solve problems related to development or even begin to clearly see them until you are looking them in the face, standing on the ground, and are adequately exposed to the sociological aspects of the problem itself.”

Some of the students on the trip were taking a class called Agriculture, Global Food Security, and Health. The class is part of the college’s global food security and health minor, which examines some of the most pressing issues that will be facing our planet as the world population swells by an additional 2 billion people over the next 30 years.

“I want them to know that everything is interconnected in the food chain, from the moment we put the seed in the ground to the moment we eat it,” said Ozzie Abaye, a professor of crop and soil environmental sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist who led the students on the journey. “The students are learning that people around the world have the same needs. We all need food, shelter, and clean water. I want them to understand that we are not that different from one another.”

The class and the new minor are part of a larger push by the college to expand students’ opportunities to study overseas and examine their studies through a global lens. The diversity of students on this trip highlighted how interdisciplinary this global charge of feeding the world is. They included students majoring in crop and soil environmental sciences; food science and technology; agricultural and applied economics; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; and environmental policy and planning, which is in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

“In order for students to learn the vital role of agriculture and life sciences in an increasingly globalized world, it’s imperative that they travel to the far corners of the globe where they can immerse themselves in the culture and understand the unique challenges facing various countries,” said Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of Global Programs.

And immerse themselves they did.

On their first day in the country, the students visited local food markets in Quito and gobbled down spicy soups swimming with charbroiled tripe. Deep in the rainforest, they ate live grubs as thick as a thumb that locals eat as a source of protein and one student described as “delicious and velvety.” They crossed wide rivers to visit tiny villages and drank chicha, a beverage made by women who chew cassava root and spit it out to create a sour, fermented drink. At a banana plantation that exports more than 300 million bananas a year around the globe, they met a woman named Fernanda who puts stickers on bananas for $7 a day. In the Andes, they ate guinea pig with a local who is fighting to hold on to his ancient culture in a rapidly changing world. After hiking on hardened lava flows on the Galapagos, the group learned the challenges of food security vulnerability when living on an island.

Ecuador is a prime place to for the students to learn the complexities of a developing and quickly changing world. Farmers are feeling the impacts of climate change as the rainy seasons get rainier and the dry seasons get drier. Deforestation in the Amazon is changing the way the locals eat and hunt. Technology is creeping into the most remote corners of the country.

The students traveled to a remote town in the Amazon accessible only by boat, where a Quechuan medicine man blessed the group of students in a traditional cleansing ceremony by blowing a cloud of tobacco smoke over them. A few minutes after the ceremony, the medicine man joined his grandson playing a video game on a smart phone.

“The world is an increasingly complex place and we want our students to experience first-hand how these emerging global issues relate to what they learn in the classroom ,” said Susan Sumner, associate dean and director of academic programs.

The trip was so moving for Charley Han (the student who said the grubs tasted “velvety”), a senior majoring in agricultural and applied economics from Centerville, Virginia, that she said when she is old enough and far along in her career, she wants to fund a scholarship so other students can experience what she did.

“Being here has taken my blinders off,” she said. “I want others to be able to have the same transformative experience I have.”

The students submitted journal entries on their experiences daily, as well as final reflection papers on their journey, sharing what they learned over the course of two weeks in South America.

“This was the trip of a lifetime,” wrote Lester Schonberger, who is earning a master’s degree in food science and technology and was using the trip as part of his research. “It is the responsibility of those who went on this trip to act as ambassadors for what they learned and act as advocates for food security in Ecuador and beyond. This trip, the connections made and the knowledge gained, act as the start to create lasting change.”

To learn more about the many global programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, visit www.cals.vt.edu/global.


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