College of ACES
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NIFA’s Director of International Programs offers global perspective

Published February 23, 2017
Dr. Otto Gonzalez speaks about global engagement.

Why should ACES engage globally?

This question was answered convincingly by Dr. Otto Gonzalez who serves as Director of the Center for International Programs at the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) when he spoke recently on campus as part of the ACES International Seminar Series.

Using four categories, Dr. Gonzalez explained the benefits of active international engagement:  

1. Trade and food safety

A great portion of our food comes from other parts of the world so by sharing science, we are also protecting ourselves.

“We want people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. This is one of USDA’s promotional messages. ‘Eat your colors - Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables’ – this is what we tell people. But even though we produce a lot here, half of our fresh fruits and nearly half of our vegetables are imported,” Gonzalez said.   

The United States imports fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables from 64 different countries, he noted.

“We need to share our science, including techniques for diagnostics, prevention, and detection, with other countries so they can better protect against microbial contamination which ultimately protects us as well,” he urged.   

2. Emerging and reemerging diseases as threat to food safety

Plant and animal diseases often initiate elsewhere, so it is beneficial to address them before they arrive in the United States.

Gonzalez provided multiple examples of how diseases threaten our food safety. Wheat blast, which causes plants to be absent of seed, somehow made its way from Latin America to Bangladesh. And the cost of the 2013 Asian influenza in chickens amounted to $1 billion worldwide. “Not only are the birds lost, but faith in the industry is lost,” he said. 

“In working with other countries we are able to share information and test out resistances in different areas of the world. Being able to protect ourselves from these emerging and reemerging diseases is a strong case for global engagement,” he said.

3. Climate trends as a threat to food security

Uncertainties in climate are contributing to global food insecurity.

Using a color-coded map of the world, Gonzalez demonstrated that “The areas already most affected by food insecurity are also the areas being most affected by variabilities and uncertainties in climate.”

“Many of these areas are already dry, and the changes in rain patterns are further exasperating the situations,” he added. And droughts and lack of access to water often contribute to migrations, further compromising food security.

He noted that NIFA has already worked with Tanzania to develop a climate change resistance plan to adapt to the changing climate.  

4. Conflict

Much of the world’s conflict is rooted in a lack of resources.

“Another reason to engage with the rest of the world is to prevent conflict. Because so much of conflict is rooted in the loss of people’s livelihoods, often which are agricultural,” he said.

To conclude the first segment of his presentation, he said, “There are lots of good reasons to engage globally, but I’ve found these categories to be a handy way to summarize them.”  

Opportunities for engaging with NIFA

Gonzalez next discussed how academics can use NIFA as a resource for international engagement.

He clarified that obviously a National Institute of Food and Agriculture is national in nature. In fact, he said only 2.6% of NIFA’s current projects have global engagement. He noted that at least five of these awards are based at the University of Illinois!

 “NIFA supports global engagement that advances U.S. agricultural goals,” he clarified.

The flagship competitive grant for U.S institutions is the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program. The NIFA website posts the AFRI calls at: https://nifa.usda.gov/afri-request-applications.

The site states that in Fiscal Year 2017, there will be seven Requests for Applications (RFAs): Foundational Program; Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area; Climate Variability and Change Challenge Area; Food Safety Challenge Area; Sustainable Bioenergy and Biproducts Challenge Area; Water for Food Production Systems Challenge Area; and the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Sciences Education and Literacy Initiative.

“International collaborations often show a greater impact, and you can write your partners into your proposal,” he noted. “The objective has to come back to a domestic objective,” he clarified.

Many of the points covered by Dr. Gonzalez about AFRI’s international partnerships can be found on this AFRI Q&A page: https://nifa.usda.gov/resource/afri-international-partnerships

He noted that NIFA has added several international partners to give U.S. researchers additional opportunities to work with international colleagues. NIFA and its international partners hope to issue more joint proposals in the future.

 “We are not giving each other money; we are each funding our own researchers,” he said of the international collaborations.

Dr. Gonzalez said a way to collaborate with your former international students is to encourage them to apply for the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) grants: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/pga/peer/index.htm

The Office of International Programs and the College of ACES were honored to have Dr. Gonzalez as a speaker and guest. During his visit, he was able to meet with several members of ACES administration, faculty, and students.

More about Dr. Gonzalez: Otto Gonzalez in February 2016 became the Director of the Center for International Programs at the NIFA. Prior to that he was a Special Projects Officer in the Office of Capacity Building and Development in the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), based in Washington, D.C. with frequent travel, where for 19 years he led international technical assistance activities to build capacity in natural resource management, agriculture, and rural development. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central America are among the areas where Gonzalez has had projects. He earned his PhD in Natural Resources and Environment (focused in forest ecology) from the University of Michigan.

More about NIFA: https://nifa.usda.gov/