Students Study Impact of Global Agricultural Research on World Poverty, Hunger Through Colorado State Internship Program in Peru

Colorado State University students just returned from a brief internship in Peru to study how global agricultural research can impact poverty and hunger while increasing the standard of living in developing countries. The internship allows top students within the Department of Horticulture to learn about agriculture in the Andes and ethnobotany, which is the interaction between plants and humans, as well as to view farming techniques employed in rural Peru for thousands of years.

For the past three years, five to 10 select Colorado State students have engaged in international research through a two-week internship at the International Potato Center in Peru,  part of a worldwide network of non-profit research centers funded by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. The network is devoted to researching crops important to reducing world hunger and poverty and improving the standard of living in the developing world. The Peru center focuses on researching potatoes and other root crops as well as on improving natural resource management in the Andes and other mountain areas.

In Peru, Colorado State students participate in and learn about studies to improve potatoes and other crops important to the region, including how biodiversity of various crops is protected. In addition, students study natural resource management and general agricultural practices in the country. These studies focus on improving the yield of potatoes and improving the economic health of the rural communities in Peru as well as the physical health of its rural residents. The research is conducted in state-of-the-art facilities in Lima, the nation’s capital, and in experiment stations in the Andean highlands and rain forests of Peru.

"Studying how people in other parts of the world practice agriculture, how other cultures use plants and also understanding the struggles of less developed agricultural societies, helps students understand future career opportunities as well as how research can directly improve society," said Jorge Vivanco, the Colorado State professor in the Department of Horticulture who serves as the student’s faculty for the internship.

The internship exposes students to international research and provides them with a new perspective of agriculture in different societies. For example, in Peru’s Andean highlands, farmers cannot afford chemicals such as fertilizer and pesticides sometimes used on American farms. Their much valued "farmer’s insurance" is not insurance as Americans think of it, with premiums paid in and reimbursements paid back in the event of a disaster; instead, in Peru, farmer’s insurance is a crop strategy that greatly diversifies the crops and varieties of crops grown in a small area.

This tactic, which includes planting a number of varieties of each crop and a number of different crops close together in a few acres, provides a level of food security. Weather patterns, diseases or insects that may affect the success of one crop or variety of a crop likely won’t impact all of the crops in the mixture.

For example, in some parts of the Andes Peruvian farmers may grow certain types of tubers immediately around plots of potatoes because insects that can damage potato crops don’t like these tubers and will avoid them. This offers some measure of protection from insects for the potato crop.

In addition, Andean farmers in Peru use manual tools and usually walk their fields to plow them by hand; some farmers own oxen which can pull crude wooden plows to work their fields. Many farmers use a foot plow called a chakitaqlla, a tool that has been used in farming in the region since Inca times. Poverty and malnutrition are a significant threat to the rural populations, and potatoes are among the region’s most significant crop.

Colorado State students visit different regions in Peru that have different ecosystems including the rainforest and tropical areas as well as the lowland areas of the country, which are more desert-like.

Students selected for the trip are typically the top students in a medicinal plants class taught by Vivanco. In the past, five to six students got to attend the internship for a week; this year, the National Science Foundation increased support for the program by funding a two week trip for 10 students. Foundation officials also asked Vivanco and his partner in the project, Carlos Arbizu, a researcher at the International Potato Center in Peru, to send them a proposal for a longer summer internship program for Colorado State students.

Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture staff members Tiffany Weir, a research associate, and Balakrihnan Prithivirah, an assistant professor, also assist in the internship program.

In addition to visiting Peru, Arbizu visits Colorado State during the semester to share information with the students about international research and the impact that agricultural research can have on reducing hunger and improving global incomes. Arbizu typically visits the class shortly before the end of the spring semester so that he can also help prepare students taking the internship with information about the research his center conducts, as well as discuss their expectations and share travel precautions with them.

Students who attend the internship are typically a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of majors within the university. Most expenses for the trip are paid by the National Science Foundation, including airfare, lodging and food, during their stay in Peru.