Soil and Crop Sciences students seek to impact global food security

By: Beth Ann Luedeker
Contact: Karina Morales, kymorales11@tamu.edu

Tackling global agriculture/food security issues is one of the primary goals of an advanced agriculture education.

Karina Morales, a soil and crop sciences doctoral student under Dr. Michael Thompson, may have the opportunity to make an noticeable impact as she works toward her degree.

At the U.S. Borluag Summer Institute for Global Food Security, Morales and her team, “Team Bangladesh”, had the winning proposal in the mock USAID grant funding project. This earned the students a trip to the World Food Prize and the opportunity to pursue grant funding for their project.

“We chose to advance a project which is currently being done on a small scale, floating vegetable gardens which allow food production during the monsoon season, when all ag lands are under water,” Morales explained. “This is beneficial to the farmers not only for food availabiltiy, but the increased availability will help diversify their diets and promote a more healthful diet. It will also provide another income source to better livelihood of the farmer.”

The premise of the project is to create vegetable gardens built upon water hyacinth, a weed which grows in abundance in Bangladesh, she said. These gardens will float when the lands become flooded.

To build the garden, water hyacinth and other water weeds are gathered onto a wire framework and compacted into rafts. Vegetable plant seedlings are later planted in the organic matter.

man in boat by floating gardens

Floating vegetable gardens in Bangladesh.

According to Morales, vegetables are being raised in this manner on about 1,000 acres, but there are nearly 4.5 million additional acres which could potentially be used.

“Our team proposed a partnership between a local university and local NGO (non-governmental organization) to provide the needed materials. The farmer would only need to provide labor, and since they are typically not able to work during the flood season, they have time to put in the labor,” Morales said. “It may also be an opportunity to empower the women, since many of the men go into the cities during the monsoon season to find work.”

Most of the farmers in Bangladesh are subsistence farmers cultivating an acre or less, and 89 percent grow rice during the drier season. Morales and her team believes that being able to grow a crop during the wet season would be of great benefit to the farmers on many levels.

The majority of “Team Bangladesh” is interested in pursuing grant funding for this project, she said. “We will be working toward that goal over the next few months.”

The Borlaug Summer Institute is a two-week program at Purdue University for graduate students which provides an working knowlege of global food security and an introduction to interdisciplinary problem solving. The program includes lectures, case studies, small group discussions and field trips.

According to Morales, most of the students participating this year were studying the hard sciences (plant breeding, soil science, food science, etc.) but there were also business students, anthropologists and others.

“It was very eye opening to see the problem of food security from different perspectives and to realize it will not be just one discipline which will solve the problem,” Morales said.

She admitted that it can be easy for scientists to overlook the importance of the anthropologists and other disciplines.

Karina Morales and Tadessa Teferra

TAMU Soil and Crop Sciences students Karina Morales and Tadessa Teferra at the Borlaug Summer Institute at Purdue.

“But, if you don’t understand the culture of the people, it can be really difficult to convince them to adopt new technologies or varieties,” she said. “The improvements you want to help them implement may not match their values, beliefs or lifestyles.”

Two Texas A&M University soil and crop sciences students attended the program this year. Morales and Tedessa Teferra, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Food Science under Dr. Joseph Awika, both hope to make an impact on global food security during their careers.

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