International students hope to improve food security agriculture education

Olivia McClure, Karimiha, Susan L.

LSU AgCenter International Programs is helping seven students pursue doctorates at LSU. Front row from left, Murshida Khan, of Bangladesh, and Fausta Marie Dutuze, of Rwanda. Back row from left, Chunala Njombwa, of Malawi; Bennett Dzandu, of Ghana; Fydess Khundi, of Malawi; Emmanuel Kyereh, of Ghana; and Susan Karimiha, AgCenter International Programs coordinator. Another student, Sarah Kagoya, of Uganda, is not pictured. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter


BATON ROUGE, La. – Students at LSU have a little over one month of the new academic year under their belts. And for seven international graduate students, it is the beginning of a long process – earning their doctorates, then returning home with hopes of sparking much-needed change in farming practices and policies.

The students, who have worked as university lecturers and government employees, are part of the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program. It is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and managed by Michigan State University.

“It is an honor for the LSU AgCenter to have been selected as the host training institution for the BHEARD scholars,” said David Picha, director of AgCenter International Programs. “Our ability to contribute to the human resource capacity building of these future leaders will in turn facilitate their efforts to enhance the lives and livelihoods of numerous individuals throughout the world.”

The students will complete coursework on LSU’s campus and then return to their home countries to do a research project under their faculty adviser’s supervision. LSU will grant their degrees.

“BHEARD has given me an opportunity to be exposed to a high-level environment, build my skills and research,” said Chunala Njombwa, a former livestock researcher at the Lunyangwa Agricultural Research Station in Malawi. “By coming here, we will build partnerships. Now I know these guys who want to come up with projects that will help small-scale farmers in our countries.”

Though the students are from five countries and work in different fields of expertise, they point to similar issues hindering agriculture in the developing world. Food security is a common theme. But unlike Americans may assume, it is more a problem of quality than quantity.

“As much as you want to make food affordable and accessible, safety and quality are equally important things,” said Bennett Dzandu, a former University of Ghana teaching assistant studying food science at LSU. “The issue is that in Africa and many places, it is rather the opposite way. Quantity and cheapness is at the expense of quality and safety of the ones consuming the food.”

A lack of comprehensive modern regulations not only means there are loopholes to getting around rules. It puts people’s health and livelihoods at risk.

In developing countries, aflatoxins are a major problem in legume crops, yet regulations on acceptable levels of this potentially toxic substance are nonexistent or seldom enforced, said Fydess Khundi, an agricultural economics student and former lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi.

“If people consume it unknowingly, it undermines the policy,” she said. “If people get sick, it hurts society as a whole and the economy.”

Njombwa, who is also from Malawi, said there are virtually no regulations for the dairy industry. Toxins are prevalent in feeds, which can make animals sick – a problem for the country’s mostly small-scale producers who depend on just one or two animals for income.

Farmers also are not well versed in management techniques, leaving room for contamination. That is unfortunate, Njombwa said, because milk is highly nutritious, especially for children under the age of 5.

Fausta Marie Dutuze, who is working on a doctorate in the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, is studying statistical modeling of poultry diseases. Chickens are dying for no clear reason in her home country of Rwanda, taking away both a food source and income. BHEARD and LSU are providing her the resources needed to study and hopefully solve the problem, she said.

The students say training people in agriculture is critical to alleviating some of their countries’ struggles. If government officials are presented with scientific evidence supporting a policy change, they are more likely to consider it, Khundi said. And having skilled people to demonstrate research-based practices makes farmers more likely to adopt them.

The middle class is growing in many countries, and those consumers are willing to pay for safe, high-quality food, often at the trendy supermarkets popping up in major cities.

“Even if you sell food along the streets, someone has to buy it, so it means you have to rebrand yourself,” said Emmanuel Kyereh, who worked for Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture before coming to LSU to study food science.

Developing countries, whose economies depend heavily on agriculture, must also be cognizant of the industry’s increasingly global nature. In Bangladesh, an antibiotic that was commonly used about 10 years ago was eventually banned because European countries would not import shrimp treated with that chemical, said Murshida Khan, who is studying in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources.

“Everything depends on what the buyer country demands,” said Khan, a former assistant professor at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University in Bangladesh. “If the buyer country’s demand is ‘your shrimp must have this,’ they want to produce this kind because most of the income comes from shrimp exporting.”

Bangladesh’s government, academia and industry also need to communicate better, Khan said. She hopes to bridge the gaps through research and teaching.

Khan and the other students recognize they will face challenges when they return home, like not having the same lab technologies available at LSU. But they are optimistic their experience here will help them make changes for the better.

“These are large issues, but you take it step by step,” Khan said.

Olivia McClure

10/6/2015 12:29:53 AM
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