Two weeks fighting to solve global food security

When it comes to complex problems, solving global food security ranks high on any list. With a changing global climate, shifting politics, warfare, and economic problems, there is no silver bullet to make safe, healthy food available to everyone on Earth.

Kunle Adesanya stands in front of a podium wearing an orange shirt, while a group of 5 other people stand to the side, all wearing native Nigerian shirts.
WSU graduate student Kunle Adesanya, left, and his group talk about food security in his native Nigeria at the 2018 Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security.

But at the Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security, they’re asking graduate students from around the country to take on the challenge. And Washington State University has had great success in sending graduate students to this well-respected and prestigious gathering, with nine attendees since 2012.

That number includes three students who attended the 2018 institute: Adekunle Adesanya, a Ph.D. student in Entomology; Aichatou Waziri, a master’s student in Crop Sciences; and Stephanie Sjoberg, a Ph.D. student in Crop Sciences.

“We need people from every country to help solve the global food security challenge,” said Adesanya, a native of Nigeria. “Attending Borlaug is like the ultimate test that what we’re learning in school is applicable in the real world, and can help make the world better.”

The institute, hosted by Purdue University, brings 40 graduate students from a variety of countries together to work on difficult food problems. The program is intense, with a series of lectures from leading international scientists and each student participating in a small group project.

Waziri and Sjoberg were grouped together on a project to solve a real-world problem in Niger, Waziri’s homeland. They were asked to rescue a crop called fonio, a type of millet, and improve another staple crop in Africa called cowpea.

“We talked about how to get farmers and women involved in improving these staple crops,” said Sjoberg, a native of Snohomish, Wash. who wants to be a plant breeder. “Women need to be included because they’re the ones who feed the families.”

The group project was personal for Waziri, but the institute showed her the broad scale of food security around the world.

“I started thinking about how I can help my country,” Waziri said. “But the institute opened my eyes to the fact there are places in wealthy countries like the U.S. where people don’t have adequate access to food.”

Three people hold up certificates in a posed photo.
Aichatou Waziri, left, Kunle Adesanya, and Stephanie Sjoberg hold their completion certificates at the end of their time at the Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security.

The students came from a variety of academic backgrounds, so they could come together for a multidisciplinary look at the problems. A plant breeder, for example, may not have come up with a solution like double bagging seeds to keep insects away during the winter months.

“I have a tendency to focus on what I’m doing in my bubble,” Sjoberg said. “Those two weeks reminded me that even one person can make a difference. My work could have a ripple effect that helps people somewhere else.”

Adesanya worked on a project involving farming in his native Nigeria, which he was especially interested in given his entomology studies.

“With climate change, the pest problems in Nigeria and other parts of Africa are becoming more frequent and a bigger issue, a good example is the on-going fall armyworm crisis in Africa,” he said. “Having the opportunity to work with students from different schools with different skill sets gave us a wider view of the problem. It was great to work together to solve this very complex problem.”

The next Borlaug Institute will be in June, 2019 at Purdue. It is open to graduate students from across U.S. universities.