The Cornell Alliance for Science converged on the United Nations Nov. 17 to launch a global conversation on ending world hunger.
As the Manhattan skyline twinkled in the background, the Alliance's 25 newly graduated Global Leadership Fellows mingled with diplomats, journalists, academics, and science allies, sharing the personal stories that prompted them to embrace technological tools in the quest for food security.
The Fellows, who represent 10 nations, had just completed a 12-week intensive course in science, communications, and grassroots organizing at Cornell University. They were the first cohort in a pioneering program conceived by Cornell plant biologist Dr. Sarah Evanega and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We must use the tools of science to end the disparity we see around the world,” Evanega told the crowd of 100 people assembled at the gala. Representatives from the Ghana, Indonesia, Uganda, and Kenya Embassies spoke of the critical need to address world hunger issues and the role that biotechnology can play in advancing agriculture.
“I feel there couldn't be a better place than the UN to begin a conversation, but be careful of the UN — sometimes we talk too much and forget implementation in the field,” said Indonesian Ambassador Desra Percaya. "It's very important."
The Fellows return to their countries this week, where they will pursue such implementation through campaigns and communication strategies they have developed, aimed at improving public understanding of the role that biotechnology and science can play in ending hunger.
“You must get to the villages where people are so you can help them make a difference, because that is where the problem is,” Kenyan Goodwill Ambassador Peter Rono said.
“I have no doubt their efforts will be of great consequence,” said Dr. Max Pfeffer, Senior Associate Dean of Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Science.
Among those sharing their personal stories were Father Emmanuel C. Alparce of the Philippines, who said that millions of his countrymen are hungry. “I’m here because I believe biotech will improve the lives of my people and my farmers,” he said.
Joni Kamiya told of how her father's Hawaii papaya farm was suffering “a slow death” from the ravages of a plant virus, until Cornell scientists genetically engineered a virus-resistant variety. “He accepted this technology to keep our farm going,” she said, noting that now she devotes much of her time to dispelling misinformation about biotechnology on social media. “It's funny that my little thing on the Internet was helping farmers in Hawaii, and hopefully it will help others around the world.”
Nassib Mugwanya spoke of how farmers in his home country of Uganda are suffering from hunger and economic setbacks because plant viruses are ravaging the essential cassava crop. Scientists have genetically engineered cassava to resist these viruses, but political activists have blocked its introduction. “Even though the solution is right in front of us, right within our reach, the legislative climate has not been right for...farmers to have this crop on their farms,” he said.
Jayson Merkley, a researcher with Vegan GMO, told of how he'd initially been opposed to biotechnology, but had come to understand that the anti-GMO stance held by most vegans is hindering efforts to address hunger and poverty. “Despite being good people with the best of intentions, we're driving a wedge between these biotech tools and the people who need them,” he said.
The Cornell Alliance for Science is now accepting applications for its 2016 Global Leadership Fellows program.