Everyone knows the tired cliché, ‘you are what you eat.’ If there’s any truth to that, the world could be in trouble in a few decades. According to various statistics, food scarcity is a real and growing issue. For example, the World Bank says food production will need to increase by 50 percent by 2050 to feed the more than 9 billion people inhabiting the planet at that time. What’s more, climate change could decrease crop yields by more than 25 percent by 2050, also according to the World Bank. In short, more people will need to be fed when there will be less land to grow food.
World leaders are struggling to find sustainable and real solutions to a growing food scarcity issue. Nevertheless, a handful of undergraduate business students are doing their part to solve the problem. A Minneapolis-based agriculture cooperative, Land O’Lakes, has created a program called the Global Food Challenge Emerging Leaders Fellowship.
In its first year, 10 students from five universities have been selected to research their own proposed ideas to create sustainable food sources and feed the predicted 9.6 billion people on earth by 2050. The participating schools are the University of Minnesota, Purdue University, Northwestern University, Iowa State University and George Washington University. Students majoring in agriculture, engineering and business were selected this year.
STUDENTS TRAVEL TO WASHINGTON D.C. AND AFRICA
Once selected to the program, students work remotely with each other, along with professors at their respective universities and a mentor from Land O’Lakes throughout the school year, to develop the ideas they presented in the application process. The fellowship culminates with an 11-week paid summer internship where students work at the Land O’Lakes headquarters in Minnesota. During the summer, students also travel to Washington D.C. and a few countries in southern Africa to test their solutions.
According to Land O’Lakes spokesperson, Larry Meadows, there are three main reasons why the fellowship came into existence this year. First-and-foremost was the impending food scarcity issue.
“We have challenges ahead of us,” says Meadows. “There won’t be enough food. Specifically, there’s not enough in underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa that are not producing enough food for themselves. There’s a worldwide water shortage. We have to increase production. How do we meet the needs of those today and tomorrow? How do we engage the next generation of leaders to get involved and take on future challenges? That is the crux behind how this program came about.”
Next, Meadows further explains a partnership with George Washington University that began in 2013 helped establish the Feeding the Planet Summit. “That’s how we started getting more students engaged in the discussion,” Meadows says. That summit helped establish and foster relationships between Land O’Lakes and George Washington University and planted the seed for partnerships with other universities.
Finally, the fellowship stems from a three decade-long investment in international development. “We are really good at farming,” Meadows says. “We know how to establish a coop and produce high yields. So what if we go to other countries and teach them how to do the same things? We started investing in farmers and investing internationally. Then we thought, ‘why don’t we develop a program where some top universities could bring their best and brightest students to look at this problem?’ We could give them a mission.”
‘IT WAS THE SCARIEST INTERVIEW OF MY LIFE’
For students, the first part of the mission was to submit a two-minute video proposing and explaining their best idea to solve global food scarcity.
“It’s a big prompt for a 19-year-old college student,” says Mandi Egeland, a sophomore at Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “I was Initially deterred when I saw that was the first requirement for the application. But then I sat down with a few students, and talked with [my] dad who has been in agriculture for 30 years. And decided I would submit a video.”
Her proposal was to change public perception of the dangers of genetically modified foods—an incredibly tall task for such a politically charged topic. It caught the eye of Land O’Lakes and Egeland was chosen for a 10-minute Skype interview with a panel of executives.
“It was the scariest interview of my life,” Egeland reflects. “But it went well and I accepted the position immediately.”
NO GREEN THUMB NECESSARY
Since accepting the position, Egeland has worked with other students in the program, Minnesota professors, and her Land O’Lakes mentor to create a marketing plan changing the perception of genetically altered seeds and foods. “Consumers are afraid of safety hazards,” Egeland explains. “I had to really research and expand my brain to understand GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) on a global scale. Instead of fighting the negative perceptions, I decided to focus on the positives of genetically modified foods.”
Despite growing up around agriculture in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Egeland really hasn’t spent much time in the industry, which is just fine according to Meadows.
“One of the things we’ve learned is growing up on a farm is not a pre-req for working in this industry,” Meadows says. “We are looking for a broader set of people. Sometimes you need people outside of the ag background to look outside of the blinds.”
Meadows believes the conversation around GMOs is a pertinent example.
“What’s the biggest thing happening in our industry now? It’s communication around GMOs,” says Meadows. “Is it OK or not to use GMOs? What happens when cattle are on antibiotics? There’s a great story and we have to get better at telling it. It’s why we choose people with diverse backgrounds—to advance the conversation in different areas of expertise. The food science people can learn from the communications people on how to make the science information more consumable. The communications people can learn about what’s going on in food science. And the people with economic and finance backgrounds can help with all of the supply movement and demand.”
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