Since 1984, the Cochran Fellowship Program has been bringing foreign agricultural professionals to the US for technical training, networking and a greater understanding of the US agricultural sector in general. The program, which is sponsored by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, is geared toward agricultural professionals from “middle income countries, emerging markets and emerging democracies.” The goal is to increase the food security of these countries, while also encouraging trade linkages with agricultural interests in the US.
This fall, Iowa State welcomed five Cochran fellows from Costa Rica and the Caribbean islands of Saint Lucia and Grenada. The topic of their training, which was hosted at the Seed Science Center on campus, was Biotechnology and Biosafety. The fellows had a range of expertise from agricultural extension to dairy production, but they all were eager to learn. The Caribbean fellows were, however, quick to point out, after their arrival in Des Moines where the weather was 43 degrees, that it was currently 95 degrees in their home countries.
The director of the training program, Dr. Dirk Maier, is a professor and post-harvest engineer in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State. Dr. Maier, who is also Associate Director of the Global Food Security Consortium at Iowa State, wrote the proposal that brought the fellows to ISU with the goal of furthering their country’s familiarity with US biosafety polices and encouraging preference for US grains and oilseeds purchases.
Trainings delved into almost every aspect of modern agriculture. Fellows visited the Plant Sciences Institute at ISU where they were able to see first-hand how the genetic material of a plant is altered to create varieties that can resist pests or tolerate prolonged dry periods. Alina Ott, Ph.D. candidate in the Interdepartmental Genetics/Genomics program, showed the fellows some of the research projects being completed at the research lab of Dr. Patrick Schnable including one of her own studies which analyzes the gene(s) that controls corn ear length.
At LongView Farm in Nevada, Iowa, the fellows saw how these enhanced seeds could be proliferated in the field. LongView produces corn and soybean seeds with biotech traits for international seed companies. At DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa, the fellows saw how biotech seed traits are developed and registered around the world. Martin Calderon, executive director of the Costa Rica Chamber of Agricultural Associations, commented after visits to the Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Corn Growers Association that “learning about US farmers pooling their dollars to fund research and market development is something he would like to explore in his country.”
Fellows visited West Central Cooperative in Boone, Iowa, where they saw farmers deliver their corn and soybean harvest. They discussed the logistics of storing and maintaining the quality of grain and oilseeds, and eventually transporting these products thousands of miles across the US by rail. Winsbert Pierre-Louis of Saint Lucia was particularly impressed saying, “seeing a cooperative that is active, vibrant and takes care of their farmers is very inspiring.”
Dr. Charles Hurburgh, professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, gave the fellows further insight into the traceability and logistics of grains and oilseeds while Dr. Jeffrey Wolt, professor of Agronomy and Toxicology, discussed the regulatory framework for biosafety laws and international regulations. Dr. Susana Goggi, Associate Professor in the Seed Science Center, provided a lecture regarding the uses of biotechnology and the new techniques available in plant transformation, and Dr. Lulu Rodriguez, professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Illinois, discussed consumer and public perceptions of biotechnology. After one of their presentations, Ronald Mora Castillo, Chief of Veterinary Diagnostics at the Animal Health National Service in Costa Rica, said that he was impressed with “the world class professionals who have spoken to the group.”
To top off their trip Dr. Maier and Eduarda Becerra of CALS-Global Programs took the Cochran Fellows to New Orleans, Louisiana to get some respite from the cold weather and to see the destination of many of Iowa’s crops. They visited export facilities of Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill from where US grains, oilseeds and processed products are shipped to major importers like Japan and Mexico. They also visited the USDA Federal Grain Inspection Service regional office and Thionville Lab which demonstrated how samples from export shipments are analyzed for quality, mycotoxins and biotech traits.
After an intensive twelve days of seminars and site visits, all participants felt that they had made some good contacts and were “looking forward to more exchanges of knowledge.” Eduardo Halabi, Vice President of Dairy Producers of Costa Rica, is hoping to invite Dr. Erin Bowers, a postdoctoral researcher with the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative, to speak to his organization. Dr. Bowers spoke to the group about mycotoxins, a subject that is becoming increasingly important to the dairy industry in Costa Rica. Patrick Kelly, an agricultural officer with the Government of Grenada, said that his experience with the Cochran Fellowship “has been exemplary. I’ve learned so much, I don’t know how I will keep it all in my head.”