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Fighting hunger with nutrition, agriculture

PROVO, Utah — Those working with BYU's Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute know the problem: There are hungry people in the world who need help.

Answers to that problem, unfortunately, are more complex.

Some of the 800 million people in the world who don't have enough to eat need education or battle harsh climates. Others need seeds that will survive in unique environments or soil conditions. Still more lack protein in their diets or clean water to drink.

And all must first become "nutritionally self-reliant" before they can become "economically self-reliant," said Allen C. Christensen, director of BYU's Benson institute.

As a result, the agricultural development organization is waging a battle against world hunger one community at a time.

In Bolivia, institute researchers are studying camelids, draft animals uniquely adapted to withstand the country's harsh, arid climate.

In Ecuador, the organization recently worked to provide clean water to two villages, where locals are now seeing improved health among their livestock, and more important, their families.

And in Guatemala, researchers are developing a quick and inexpensive way for farmers to analyze soil fertility.

"We don't come into a country and bring big sums of money," said Brother Christensen. "We try to improve the human capacity to solve their own problems."

The Benson Institute was founded Sept. 15, 1975, in honor of Church President Ezra Taft Benson, who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61. The mission of the Benson Institute, said Brother Christensen, has always been "to raise the quality of life through improved nutrition and enlightened agricultural practices" and to "promote research and teaching that will improve the quantity and quality of the food produced" in impoverished nations.

Picture books lining the walls of the institute library on the BYU campus tell the story of the institute's success. There are photographs of green plants growing in once arid highlands, families raising guinea pigs and chickens for protein, mothers preparing nutritionally balanced meals, children learning at school how to grow a garden, and students gaining an education and conducting research that will help rural villages.

An international student weighs children in Ecuador to assess needs as part of university thesis.
An international student weighs children in Ecuador to assess needs as part of university thesis. | Photo courtesy Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute

"The real goal is to institutionalize what we do in the country in the education system, so that when we leave, it is part of the community," said Richard L. Brimhall, associate director of the institute. "If it can't be duplicated by them, it is not worth doing by us."

Luis V. Espinoza, also associate director of the institute, said many small-scale farmers need help cultivating their land, on average about 2.5 acres. For example, those who can afford fertilizer often don't get the kind that will make a difference in their soil, he explained.

Many Third World farmers operate under a "survival management style," added Brother Christensen. "Anything they do that fails increases the likelihood that they and their children will starve to death."

Brother Espinoza said working with even one family in a community can make a difference for everyone, as others mimic the patterns that brought success. "They are always looking over the fence," he said. "They support each other."

Success comes as those working with the Benson Institute understand the complexities — weather, bugs, wind, rainfall — of a certain region and educate villagers. They help farmers preserve the integrity of their families' nutrition first, before growing crops to be sold for a profit. They teach children to raise chickens, guinea pigs or other sources of protein. And they adapt farming methods to geography. In the Bolivian highlands, for example, villagers make pankar-huyus, or small underground greenhouses.

In rural villages, the institute first targets the local school teachers and their pupils, said Brother Brimhall. They grow vegetable and animal products at the school and train the students' mothers to prepare these products — immediately expanding the reach of the program from the school into the homes.

The Benson Institute's program also involves international university students as a key instrument for change in the rural communities, said Brother Christensen. In order to obtain their university degree, he explained, most undergraduate students in Latin America must complete four years of course work followed by a thesis based on original research. The Benson Institute provides academic and financial assistance to support thesis research in nutritional and agricultural science.

Garden at Corral de Piedra village school in Chiquimula, Guatemala, is part of Benson Institute proj
Garden at Corral de Piedra village school in Chiquimula, Guatemala, is part of Benson Institute project. | Photo courtesy Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute

Brother Christensen said the institute gets a return on this investment when the students visit target villages, interview families, make recommendations, conduct research and prepare a set of lessons used for training. The students are also encouraged to return to the villages to teach these lessons.

BYU students also fill internships in target areas, conducting research and teaching, said Brother Christensen.

In all, he added, the institute has worked with 5,000 families during the past decade. He has seen the proof in many of their lives that the program is making a difference.

"We have the science, technology and ability to produce food for every human being," he said. "But President Benson knew that people need to learn to produce it for themselves."

Cynthia Flores, a Benson Institute scholarship recipient studying at the University of San Carlos Me
Cynthia Flores, a Benson Institute scholarship recipient studying at the University of San Carlos Medical School in Guatemala, teaches nutrition. | Photo courtesy Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute
Quinoa, a native grain that is high in protein, is produced by Benson Institute to help strengthen n
Quinoa, a native grain that is high in protein, is produced by Benson Institute to help strengthen nutrition in Bolivia. Those working with the Benson Institute in Bolivia hope to help villagers institutionalize their successful agricultural methods. | Photo courtesy Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute
A University of San Carlos student plants seeds in Chiquimula, Guatemala.
A University of San Carlos student plants seeds in Chiquimula, Guatemala. | Photo courtesy Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute
Above, camelids are part of Benson Institute research at Hidango Station in Chile.
Above, camelids are part of Benson Institute research at Hidango Station in Chile. | Photo courtesy Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute

While the salaries and expenses of the Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute professionals/staff are provided by BYU, independent donors can help by financially assisting the organization's projects. Contact the Benson Institute for more information: (801) 422-2607 or benson_institute@byu.edu.

E-mail to: sarah@desnews.com

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