Less than a week after graduation at NC A&T University, hundreds of people streamed onto campus for a conference about food insecurity in developing countries.
Professor Manuel Reyes distinguished himself immediately from the lectern by resorting to humor. From the front of the room at the Alumni-Foundation Event Center at NC A&T University in Greensboro, Reyes pulled up a PowerPoint slide declaring his love for his wife Lorna. Sitting a few rows back, he asked her to stand as attendees chuckled and applauded before Reyes moved onto his next subject: his 16-year-old son, seated next to his wife. And then his older son, for whom he tried to play matchmaker in absentia, and then his sisters, and then his 100-year-old mother.
By now the couple hundred attendees relaxed a little in their suits, and raptly tuned into Reyes’ excited but nervous exultations from the stage. Only about an hour had passed on the final day of the Board for International Food & Agricultural Development, or BIFAD meeting on May 20, and Reyes’ delivery jolted more people to attention than the coffee provided in the back of the room.
After advertising his desire for his older son to produce a grandchild and completing the family slideshow, the A&T professor pivoted to a subject he appeared just as passionate about: the importance of marrying preservation and saving resources with food production. In the pursuit of increased global food production and agricultural output, Reyes vociferously preached against the dangers of ignoring ecological impact.
Reyes, a professor in the natural resources & environmental design department, fervently explained that he’s seen rainforests in country after country clear-cut to make way for food production, pointing to Del Monte growing pineapples in the Philippines in particular. There’s irreversible soil loss, he said before rattling off a long list of countries including Cambodia, Honduras and Tanzania where the trend persists.
“Grow not save, rainforest cut!” Reyes repeated in each scenario, as if reciting a mantra about environmental degradation at the hands of agriculture.
The practice is fundamentally unsustainable and hurts the land and people, Reyes said. He added that the alternative is a more environmentally sound, holistic approach that he refers to as “save and grow” where growing methods form a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem rather than a large-scale approach that looks more like a slash-and-burn model.
“We have no choice now,” he said. “Save and grow is inseparable. Just like me and Lorna.”
Reyes brought as much energy to the stage as a singer for a punk band while relying on the humor of a late-night host and the tools of personalities like Oprah to engage his audience, instructing people to look under their seats for the Del Monte cans he’d placed there to illustrate his point.
Reyes’ impassioned presentation came as part of a panel of three A&T professors, just one of several discussions at the BIFAD meeting last week. The board, which consists of food-policy advisors and members of academia including A&T Chancellor Harold Martin, advises USAID “on agriculture and higher education issues pertinent to food insecurity in developing countries,” according to an invitation for the board meeting.
Reyes presented first on the panel, entitled “NC A&T Leadership in International Agricultural Innovation,” accompanied by his colleagues Anthony Yeboah and Osei Yeboah from the agribusiness, applied economics and agriscience education department and the Leonard C. Cooper Jr. International Trade Center at A&T respectively. After focusing on the benefits of “save & grow” focused on soil preservation and more sustainable farming practices, Reyes switched to talking about the need to protect and “grow” marginalized people as well, highlighting university projects and Aggies across the world. Reyes plugged forward despite running over his time, calling on audience members to stand for recognition including the only black farmer in Montgomery County, to whom Reyes turned over the floor briefly for a testimonial.
In a question-and-answer session with board members including Chancellor Martin after the panel members’ presentations, board members said they appreciated Reyes’ point about disappearing rainforests in particular. Board member Pamela Anderson, the director general emeritus of the International Potato Center, acknowledged that while many people may welcome more ecologically friendly approaches to food production, she said that by and large, more data on effectiveness is necessary to scale up projects such as Reyes’ research. Reyes said he’d be happy to provide specifics that had been collected in Cambodia since 2004 in particular, adding that there is evidence that “save and grow” leads to increased yield through its more conservationist approach while preventing erosion.
Other aspects of the multi-day conference may not have been as spirited as Reyes’ pleading if not somewhat goofy declarations; executives from Agricultural Biotech, Syngenta, SoBran BioScience and Perdue Farms Specialty Crops anchored the following panel, focused on sustainable agricultural technology development. Earlier that morning, USAID’s chief scientist for the Bureau of Food Security provided a brief update on Feed the Future, the federal government’s global hunger and food security initiative which partners with universities around the country including NC A&T and NC State to combat global hunger.
But while other portions of the meeting may not have been as riveting as Reyes’ calls to action, they were no less interesting or consequential, particularly professor Osei Yeboah’s warnings about the shortcomings of funding or conducting anti-hunger research in a silo or not considering other essential factors such as affordability in the battle for food security.
“You can do the research, and you have no one to take it to the farmers,” Yeboah cautioned.