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By Keith Robinson
November 20, 2014

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged the nation to share its expertise in agriculture and the research of its universities with developing countries to help end world hunger.

Vilsack made those remarks as part of the Presidential Lecture Series at Purdue University on Monday (Nov. 17). He also met with researchers, administrators and students and toured some laboratories during a campus visit Nov. 17–18.

Vilsack’s presentation in Stewart Center’s Loeb Playhouse included a question-and-answer period moderated by university President Mitch Daniels.

Vilsack focused his message on what he called the opportunity for America to accept “the big challenge” of leading the effort to end global hunger amid changing climate.

“It’s obvious that if you feed more people and you have fewer hungry people, you’re going to have a more secure world,” he said. “But I think it also provides an opportunity for a great nation to do a great thing. This country has a reputation of providing a helping hand, of helping developing countries develop into modern economies.”

He said U.S. agriculture “is at the center of this” because of how productive it has become over the past century. The U.S., he said, should pass its knowledge of agricultural productivity on to developing countries.

Purdue Agriculture, through its International Programs in Agriculture, has long shared its expertise in agriculture with developing countries to help them become more productive and improve their economies. As an example, the Purdue Improved Crop Storage program, with its triple-layered, hermetically sealed bags that cost less than $2 each, enables farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to store a variety of major crops for more than a year after harvest, contributing to greater availability of food there. The bags have helped lift millions of people, including smallholder farmers, out of poverty.

One of IPIA’s most visible programs involves its work in helping war-torn Afghanistan build a strong agricultural economy.

Vilsack started his Purdue visit by meeting with Gebisa Ejeta, the distinguished professor of plant breeding and genetics who received the 2009 World Food Prize for developing drought- and disease-resistant sorghum, a staple food crop in many African nations.

“We certainly appreciate his extraordinary contribution to global food security,” Vilsack told the audience.

Vilsack said universities must play a vital role in the effort to end world hunger.

“Each great university has a responsibility not just to its students but to the world,” he said, adding that Purdue has produced more than 15,000 patents.

That, he said, “is a suggestion of this extraordinary potential that universities have to plug into our efforts in climate, to plug into our efforts at global food security, to provide for a safe and better world.”

Vilsack noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are collaborating on Feed the Future, an initiative to improve agricultural production and nutrition in 19 countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America.

“Now, all of this has to dovetail with our efforts in terms of climate,” Vilsack said.

He pointed out that the U.S. and New Zealand in 2009 started the Global Research Alliance to coordinate research on climate issues. The group now consists of 41 countries, many of which focus on how a changing climate affects specific sectors of agriculture, such as livestock, crop production and soil health.

Further, Vilsack explained that the U.S., Vietnam and the Netherlands in September created the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture to focus on making agriculture resilient to climate change, thereby making it more productive while reducing greenhouse gases associated with agriculture.

On Tuesday, Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue Agriculture, led Vilsack on a tour of two labs, where Vilsack was briefed on university research:

  • Birck Nanotechnology Center.  Ali Shakouri, the Mary Jo and Robert L. Kirk Director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center and professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Dimitrios Peroulis, deputy director of the center and professor of electrical and computer engineering, discussed sensors, advanced manufacturing and their importance in agriculture.

Vilsack also was briefed on Purdue’s work in several research areas, including:

  • Plant sciences initiative, with Karen Plaut, senior associate dean of research for the College of Agriculture, and Katy Rainey, assistant professor of agronomy.

Vilsack concluded his visit by meeting in a roundtable discussion with students in the College of Agriculture, College of Health and Human Sciences, and Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program, with Akridge and Marcos Fernandez, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and director of academic programs, attending.

Akridge said Vilsack’s visit enabled Purdue Agriculture to highlight research in plant sciences and renewable energy as well as Purdue Extension’s innovative rural community development programming.

“It was an honor to host Secretary Vilsack and have the opportunity to showcase some of our exciting research and Extension initiatives, and to have him engage our students,” he said.

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