From Iowa to India: Combating Mycotoxins in the Footsteps of a Revolutionary
Of the many things we can learn from history, my favorite is that powerful movements are often born of humble beginnings. I am proud that the Borlaug story began in Cresco, just hours from the Iowa farm that I shall forever consider home. Perhaps those who are wrought from the farmland, and who possess an innate understanding of the people who work it, are simply best positioned to be the movers and shakers that prod rural communities into action. Or, it might be that there is something quintessentially Iowan about agricultural breakthroughs (not to let my biases show, of course). Regardless, Borlaug’s legacy continually draws me closer to my Iowa roots, into the intellectual and humanitarian spaces that my greatest hero cherished most.
The World Food Prize first surfaced on my radar as a teenager in rural Iowa, at a point in my life when I was wholly disenchanted with my agricultural upbringing. The Global Youth Institute first exposed me to the complexities and volatilities of the global food system. As my interest in agronomy began to grow, the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship (for which I was stationed at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Mbita, Kenya) revealed to me an agricultural system quite different from the never-ending Iowa cornfields: the pervading agricultural system across much of the world, defined by a perennial struggle to nourish communities and fill hungry bellies. This realization gave me a true sense of the importance of farming, and an appreciation for the magnitude of food and nutrition deficits around the globe.
I returned from Kenya refreshed and activated, and took inspiration from Borlaug in visualizing what my role might be in the fight against hunger. “Take it to the farmer,” an immortalized commandment from Borlaug, resonated in a new and exciting way. I found agricultural science to be fundamentally important, realizing that its integration into the socio-political factors that shape food systems is a critical prerequisite for sustainable and scalable enhancements to global food security.
In a fashion eerily parallel to Norm’s, early on in my college career I turned to plant pathology as a point of entry into the worldwide conversation on food security. Because diseases of staple grains hinder productivity and suppress smallholder economies, I became convinced that this field was a perfect venue for the interdisciplinary approach I envisioned. My mind was stretched and fortified over the four years I spent as an undergraduate at Grinnell College, and I found a passion there for investigating the intersections between plant diseases, sociocultural dynamics, and agricultural development. Along the way, and in a large part facilitated by my connections to the World Food Prize, I explored these topics in research settings in the U.S. and around the world.
These lessons from Borlaug, my greatest teacher, a fellow Iowan, plant pathologist, and an advocate for the smallholder, have now directed me to northern India: the epicenter of South Asia’s Green Revolution. As a plant pathology PhD student at Cornell University, I am continuing to leverage gains in agricultural and nutritional sciences to empower village communities to detect and mitigate harmful fungal toxins in the food system. These toxins, called ‘mycotoxins,’ contaminate a range of important food commodities and are especially dangerous in parts of the world that lack sufficient regulatory capacity.
In addition to the potentially crippling effects of these toxins on yield and market value, they have been implicated in numerous human and livestock diseases that pose a substantial public health threat. Consumption of contaminated foods is known to bring about adverse nutritional, immunological, and growth outcomes, especially in children. In India, there is still much to learn about the dynamics of mycotoxin exposure and viable routes for community-scale intervention. The combined social, economic, and public health burdens associated with exposure may serve to undermine the gains realized by Borlaug’s Green Revolution in the region. Therefore, I have made it my mission in the PhD to shed light on the great tangle of issues underpinning India’s toxin risks, and to determine whether and how communities should react to circumstances that drive fungal contamination and risk of exposure.
Borlaug’s Green Revolution satisfied a great need in its era: it gave farmers the means to supply their communities with the necessary energy (in the form of cereal calories) to bolster productivity and catalyze development. This legacy also serves as an important model for uniting science and communities to realize agricultural progress – which will undoubtedly be a vital feature of the coming “revolution,” namely, the enhancement of global access not only to calories, but to diverse, nourishing diets. A huge challenge indeed, but luckily I am joined in Norm’s footsteps by the ever-burgeoning next generation of hunger fighters who possess the tools and wherewithal to succeed.
My piece of this process is only a small one, but there is nothing I would rather do in the PhD years and beyond than to devote myself to “taking it to the farmer.” The Borlaug story which, like mine, began in rural Iowa and expanded throughout the world continues to inspire me and many others who envision a food-secure future.