September 24, 2004

Lecture Celebrates CALS Centennial

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Three distinguished experts in food, agriculture and nutrition discussed world hunger and nutrition topics in the first of three seminars designed to commemorate the centennial birthday of the College of Agriculture and Life Science.

The first seminar, entitled “Accomplishments and Aspirations: Linking Agriculture, Nutrition and Health,” showcased World Food Prize laureates, Nevin Scrimshaw, Catherine Bertini and H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy, Prof. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, nutritional sciences and applied economics and management, who addressed nearly 250 students and faculty members in the Biotechnology Building.

CALS Dean Susan A. Henry introduced the seminar, followed by Prof. Cutberto Garza, director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, who came up with the idea for the seminars. He welcomed the speakers and announced that Henry will be serving a second term as dean of CALS.

Scrimshaw, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder and president of the International Nutrition Foundation, discussed ways in which agricultural specialists could nutritionally fortify diets by genetically manipulating crops to carry more substantive components.

According to Scrimshaw, this “coming agricultural revolution in the nutritional quality of foods” involves focusing on the quality of food rather than the quantity. Staples such as wheat, sweet potatoes and rice, he argued, can be genetically manipulated and cultivated to provide additional essential vitamins and minerals. Referring to this practice as “molecular farming for better nutrition,” Scrimshaw contended that “we must provide better and more consistent advice to plant and animal breeders,” so that agriculture’s nutritional potential might be realized.

“The agricultural sector must and will partner with the health sector to assure the nutrition and health status of the international population,” he said.

Pinstrup-Andersen discussed the importance of good nutrition within an agricultural economy. He stressed the strong links between agriculture and nutrition including health, productivity, income, price and availability.

Contending that “good nutrition is good for agriculture,” Pinstrup-Anderson explained that bad nutrition leads to bad health, which in turn dilutes a community’s productivity, ultimately leading to poverty. He discussed a number of possible policies that address the relationship between nutrition and struggling economies, including price, trade, research and technology policies.

Bertini, the current United Nations undersecretary general for management and chair of the U.N. System Standing Committee on Nutrition, spoke about worldwide food aid projects. Reiterating the purpose of food aid to end worldwide hunger, Bertini contended that food aid efforts should be concentrated in areas where food is most desperately needed in the community and should not be dumped on local markets in excess amounts. She gave the example of setting up bakeries that give bread to widows otherwise unable to obtain food in formerly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where women could not travel without a male blood relative.

She also went on to discuss the social significance of food aid, noting that in many developing nations, food is especially important to the quality of life for women.

Food is especially important for women because in many communities the influence of food helps women maintain control over their households. Bertini said that anecdotally, women in different countries have said to her, “Please keep sending food to my household because I can control it; when cash comes in my husband controls it and I don’t know what he’ll spend it on.” Food aid is also used as an incentive to get girls into schools and improves learning by providing sustenance to children at school.

“I thought that the seminar was very much on target, especially Ms. Bertini saying that women tend to spend more of their income on their family while men spend theirs on other things, so we should develop programs and policies that give women more access to the aid.” said Keith Poe grad.

The audience members appeared to appreciate the caliber of the speakers and programs offered at Cornell. “People don’t realize how accomplished the University is in the areas of Nutrition, Agriculture and Health,” said Jill Shemin ’05.

During a question and answer session, the speakers addressed issues of needed research, genetically-modified foods and the influence of HIV/AIDS on health and nutrition. “I liked [Pinstrup-Andersen’s] comment about how there are strings attached to private funding for research that kind of control what is researched,” said Pete Shelton grad.

“I thought it was a very good summary of both potential solutions and a somewhat discouraging scope of the existing problems; there really is a lot to be done,” said Prof. Joe Regenstein, food science.

Afterwards, the speakers talked to audience members during a reception. “Try to find a way to spend some time in a developing country; there’s nothing like seeing it to be able to understand the situation,” said Pinstrup-Andersen in giving advice to students interested in world hunger.

Garza said, “The most exciting thing is that we can do a lot more and have the possibility of not only eliminating hunger, but providing better health.”

Archived article by Ellen Miller
Sun Senior Writer and
Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Staff Writer