AfS at 5: Five successes

By Sarah Evanega

August 26, 2019

I was pregnant with my second child, my daughter, while I gestated—in collaboration with great partners from around the world—the concept that became the Cornell Alliance for Science.

My daughter is now five. Like the Alliance for Science, she has a strong sense of self, the determination to win and the creativity to achieve goals in new, yet unimagined ways.

Over the past five years, we have built a global alliance modeled on three principles: Justice. Evidence. Urgency. We are passionate about achieving social justice for the poor. We stand firmly in support of the science.  We are driven by a sense of urgency in light of the world’s pressing social and environmental challenges.

And we continue to build momentum. Today, as I reflect on the first five years of the Alliance for Science, I want to share the five successes that give me the most hope for our future.

Global Leadership Fellows Program

The champions who have participated in, grown and contributed back to our 12-week Global Leadership Fellows Program (GLFP) are the heart of the Alliance for Science. Over the past five years, 80 champions from 22 different countries have completed the GLFP. This week, we are welcoming 33 more in our 2019 class. Without the Fellows, we would have no pulse, no oxygen, no arteries.

The program is unique in its skills-based approach to training, inclusivity and breadth, engaging entrepreneurs, environmentalists, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, farmers, journalists, musicians, youth advocates, priests, scientists—champions from all walks of life and corners of the world.  They come to Cornell with the drive to foster food security and end world hunger and become a global team working to ensure access to innovation in their own countries and around the world.

The fellowship feeds and fans the fire in their bellies, further empowering them to go forward as change-makers. When they leave, they ignite more fires—fires of inspiration and hope in their own countries. They grow their movements in ways that are culturally and politically astute within the identity groups to which they belong: A priest among Catholics, a cassava grower among farmers; a social media maven on Pinterest; a vegan among vegans. Over the past five years they have achieved many hard-won victories, and I’ll share five examples in my next post.

Collaboration across borders

One way the Fellows increase their impact is through cooperation across borders.  After their course at Cornell, the Fellows continue to collaborate across cohorts and continents to share lessons learned, pitch in as AfS trainers and cooperate on projects, whether it’s Patricia Nanteza of Uganda helping Arif Hossain with a media-related course in Bangladesh or Father Noli Alparce from the Philippines engaging Hawaii-based farmers of Filipino descent in conversations about faith and food security.

Beyond the Fellows, the Alliance has forged strong global partnerships instrumental to our growth and our impact. These partners include organizations that share our commitment to ensuring access to biotech innovations, such as the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, the International Service for Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, as well as groups that are similarly dedicated to science and data-driven decision-making, like Ceres 2000, the Institute for Food & Agricultural Literacy and Sense about Science. We’ve also aligned with partners like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and various national agricultural research institutes that are working to develop new germplasm and, in the words of Norman Borlaug, “take it to the farmer”.

Changing the conversation

As a global communications initiative, our international team of videographers and writers is actively discovering and reporting stories about how biotechnology can contribute to a more food secure, environmentally sustainable world. These are science-based stories with a human dimension that make biotech accessible, relatable, shareable. Stories of farmers who yearn for access to technology that can weather the increasingly dire impacts of climate change. Stories from scientists who are dedicated to producing better breeds of animals and crops that will help farmers sustainably produce nutritious, accessible food. Stories that are amplified and informed through strong partners like the Science Media Centre, the Science Entertainment Exchange, CRISPRcon and Engage Kenya.

In the five years since our launch, we have built a reputation as a credible, science-based source of information on agricultural biotechnology, carving out a unique space in an arena previously dominated by anti-GMO activists and multinational agrichemical companies. As a result, the data are clear—we have played an important role in changing the conversation around biotechnology. As reporters have gained greater understanding about the technology, they seem less receptive to the narrative presented by anti-GMO groups. We are seeing more nuanced, balanced reporting and a growing interest in emerging biotechnologies. Top tier media outlets increasingly reflect the messages we have been sharing in our first five years: the safety of the technology, and the right of farmers everywhere to access innovation that can improve lives and the environment.

Taking it to the roots

We are amplifying the voices of farmers—those who arguably have the most at stake in the “debate” about biotechnology but are too rarely invited to the table.  People love to talk about what farmers want or need, but the loudest voices are usually far from the farm. Today, in the US, only 1.8 percent of our population is involved in agriculture.  Although that number is much higher in most countries across the developing world, we still see urban elites detached from the enterprise of farming wielding undue influence over the social and regulatory licenses that ensure access to biotech.

The Alliance for Science is changing that dynamic. We seek out the voices of growers who are ready to shoulder the burden of feeding 10 billion in 2050 while protecting our environment and we give them a platform to tell their stories—on social media, through our YouTube channel and to journalists and international audiences who otherwise may not understand the local and universal challenges of food production. Growers like Patience Koku, a farmer struggling to help feed Nigeria, which is on track to become the third-most populated country by 2050, and Amy Hepworth, a sixth-generation New York state organic farmer who believes we need more than a two-party agricultural system.

We must focus on adopting effective, sustainable farming practices and abandon the dogmatic thinking of organic versus GMO versus conventional.  Combining the best tools from each system can help us achieve a new organic.  We already see evidence of this in Bangladesh, where farmers like Md. Milon Mia are reporting dramatic reductions in pesticide use after growing genetically engineered Bt eggplant.  On average, these farmers report 62 percent less pesticide use, with some farmers reducing use by as much as 92 percent. What’s more, those farmers are also experiencing a six-fold increase in their income.

Partnering for impact

The story of Milon Mia and his fellow farmers in Bangladesh is part of a larger global story about partners working together to ensure that biotech science can positively impact people’s lives and the environment.  We are seeing wins around the world:  three significant Bt cotton approvals in 2018, the consideration of Bt maize as a solution to fall armyworm for farmers across Africa; and the adoption of insect-resistant Bt cowpea in Nigeria.

Bt cowpea is a significant victory for Africa, where cowpeas are an important source of protein for the millions who often cannot afford the luxury of meat. Demand is currently outstripping supply and the price of cowpea has skyrocketed beyond the means of the rural and urban poor. This shortage is due primarily to production challenges, not the least of which is the voracious appetite of an insect pest, the maruca pod borer, that can destroy up to 80 percent of a farmer’s crop.

Fortunately, science found a solution. Researchers in Nigeria and elsewhere have been working for over a decade to develop and deploy local varieties of genetically engineered cowpea that can resist the maruca pod borer—without the use of pesticides. This technology has been tested in field trials across Ghana and Nigeria for over nine years, where it has proven its resiliency season after season.  This year, convinced of its safety and efficacy, the Nigerian government approved the commercial release of this robust cowpea, and it will finally be available to farmers who are eager to crop this crop.  Approval came despite the outsized voices of activist groups—few in number and funded primarily by countries across the well-fed global north—who actively campaigned against releasing this life-changing biotechnology to the smallholder farmers who need it most.

Fortunately, the cowpea success story is not unique.  The tide is turning, and biotechnology is moving ahead. Farmers in Africa and Asia, especially the youth, want access to the same tools of science and technology that have advanced the business of agriculture in the US and in so many other countries.

With just five years behind us, our global alliance is starting to have tremendous impact, thanks to the support, participation and commitment of those who are share our belief that biotechnology can play a vital role in improving lives and the environment, and must not bypass the poor.  We look forward to the work that lies ahead in this critical time for the health of the planet and its peoples.