How a unique partnership with BYU and Latter-day Saint Charities is changing lives in Mongolia

More than a year ago, as part of the Asia Area presidency’s efforts to connect with government leaders in the countries where they serve, Elder Peter F. Meurs of the Asia Area presidency of the Church reached out to government leaders in Mongolia to ask what the Church could do to help their country. 

“We felt that it would be a blessing to talk to the most senior government leaders we can and ask them what their priorities are,” Elder Meurs said in a recent phone interview with the Church News. “We asked them what their needs were in Mongolia, and the two very clear, very focused priorities of Mongolia were to solve the smoke pollution problem in Ulaanbaatar and also to solve their food preservation problem.”

With those two goals in mind, Elder Meurs reached out to Latter-day Saint Charities (or Deseret International Charities Mongolia) and to Brigham Young University for help in early 2018. That was the beginning of the ongoing and somewhat unique partnership involving BYU, Latter-day Saint Charities, Asia areas of the Church, and the Mongolian government. And recently, that partnership led to a visit from a special delegation from Mongolia to Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Preventing pollution

Addressing the pollution problems in Ulaanbaatar, as instructed by Elder Meurs, the engineering department at BYU — through the help of its Capstone program — took on the challenge of coming up with new ways to heat the traditional Mongolian yurt-style houses known as gers. With more than 150,000 ger units forming communities around the perimeter of the capital city in Mongolia, the traditional homes — which are heated by coal stoves — have caused major smoke pollution problems in recent years. 

After ruling out a few different ideas for how to better heat the structures, the engineers at BYU determined that the best way to reduce the pollution levels caused by heating the structures would be to insulate them better and then switch to using small electric heaters rather than coal-burning stoves. 

“I gave them a challenge,” Elder Meurs said. But the students rose to the challenge, and two teams were created. One team focused on developing a way to insulate and provide small electric heaters for the gers for less than $300 per home while the other team was tasked with developing an alternative housing structure that would be easier to heat.

“In March this year the BYU students went and implemented the ger solution,” Elder Meurs said. “They insulated three gers and built an alternate structure. It’s a marvelous, simple solution.” 

BYU Engineering Capstone teams travel to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to implement project of retrofitting existing gers with insulation and building a new structure to help with heat efficiency to help with pollution problem due to burning coal. Project was in conjunction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Deseret International Charities.
BYU Engineering Capstone teams travel to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to implement project of retrofitting existing gers with insulation and building a new structure to help with heat efficiency to help with pollution problem due to burning coal. Project was in conjunction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Deseret International Charities. Credit: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Currently, some 150 gers are in the process of being insulated and that 10 more alternate structures are being built as part of the ongoing project to improve the air quality. 

“We’re doing the installation with ‘Do It Yourself’ kits,” he said, noting that the kits allow Mongolians to install the insulation themselves. “Then the intention is to monitor those this winter and see how they perform. If everything goes well, we’ll insulate between 5,000 and 10,000 gers next summer in preparation for winter.”

Following the initial installations in a ger district outside Ulaanbaatar in March, the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar as well as the Mongolian Prime Minister met with the students and thanked them for their solution.

The government officials he has worked with “have been amazed at how quickly we responded,” Elder Meurs said. “They were touched by the BYU students and their whole approach. And as they’ve got to know us because we visit them every three months, they now understand that our only interest is in blessing people and trying to make a difference. … So they are very excited about moving forward.”

BYU Engineering Capstone teams travel to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to implement project of retrofitting existing gers with insulation and building a new structure to help with heat efficiency to help with pollution problem due to burning coal. Project was in conjunction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Deseret International Charities.
BYU Engineering Capstone teams travel to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to implement project of retrofitting existing gers with insulation and building a new structure to help with heat efficiency to help with pollution problem due to burning coal. Project was in conjunction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Deseret International Charities. Credit: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Addressing food preservation

For the small population of 3 million people in the landlocked nation of Mongolia, nearly 30% of the country’s population continues to live spread across the vast expanse of the nation’s 21 provinces while the other 70% are concentrated in Ulaanbaatar. 

Holding to their traditions as pastoral nomads, the people are heavily reliant on a diet of mainly meat and milk products, supplemented by what can be produced in the country’s very short growing season. That means if the food produced during their growing season isn’t properly preserved to last throughout the long winter months, the people’s overall nutrition and diet suffers during much of the year, explained Brad Taylor, a BYU professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science.

Julie Ramos, a representative with Latter-day Saint Charities who has worked closely on the partnership between Mongolia and the Church-owned entities over the last year or so, explained that although Mongolia is a very resource rich country, they have a lot of hidden needs. 

“Even though they have plenty of food, … it doesn’t necessarily mean that nutrition needs are met,” Ramos said. 

Due to the short growing season and the rates at which produce spoils without proper preservation techniques in Mongolia, growth stunting and high anemia rates are among some of the many nutritional challenges the country faces, Ramos explained. 

Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia tour through food processing facilities in Idaho and Utah during their visit in August 2019.
Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia tour through food processing facilities in Idaho and Utah during their visit in August 2019. Credit: Dallin Penrod, BYU Photo

A major part of addressing those underlying issues will come from teaching and implementing better food preservation and safety systems, explained Taylor. 

“We’re helping Mongolians understand the parameters that are critical to food safety and the quality of a preserved product,” he said, noting that Mongolia has not yet implemented many of the standardized processes for determining food quality that exist in the U.S. or in other countries. 

After visiting Mongolia with a group of professors and students from the BYU College of Life Sciences last year to perform an analysis of the country’s food preservation systems, BYU and Latter-day Saint Charities invited a Mongolian delegation of food and agricultural experts to come to Utah to learn from some of the systems used here.

On Wednesday, Aug. 14, the group of 12 delegates from Mongolia, representing various positions in the food and agricultural systems in their country, toured around Welfare Square, the bishop’s storehouse and Temple Square as part of a week-long visit to Utah and Idaho. During the week, they also visited farms and food preservation sites in both Utah and Idaho. 

Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia visit a fruit farm in Utah during their visit in August 2019.
Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia visit a fruit farm in Utah during their visit in August 2019. Credit: Hannah Hughes, BYU Photo

Despite having come nearly 6,000 miles and having endured more than 20 hours of travel time away from their homes, the delegates — many of whom came at their own expense — showed visible excitement for the things they were learning during their visit. 

Gochoosuren Sanjaa, a specialist in the plantation unit of the government in Ulaanbaatar, shared his thoughts with the Church News through the help of Kai Mashlai, a BYU translator. While the delegation visit was exciting and educational, Sanjaa said, it marked only the beginning of what is needed to really address food preservation problems in Mongolia. 

“We need to start small and grow step by step,” Sanjaa said. He added that seeing the processes used by the Church-owned facilities gave him hope for how things can be improved in Mongolia, particularly through small family and community farms which sustain the majority of the population outside of Ulaanbaatar. 

Following the delegation visit, Taylor said he and with others from BYU plan to return to Mongolia and continue working with the delegation and others in the country to begin implementing some of the food preservation and storage techniques in a way that will work for the culture and climate in Mongolia.

Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia tour through food processing facilities in Idaho and Utah during their visit in August 2019.
Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia tour through food processing facilities in Idaho and Utah during their visit in August 2019. Credit: Dallin Penrod, BYU Photo

“So far it’s been a wonderful project to have our students get involved with,” Taylor added. “We’ve learned a lot, they’ve learned a ton and this has definitely been very rewarding.”

A small transition

With Mongolia being reassigned from the Asia Area to the Asia North Area earlier this month, Elder Meurs is stepping away from involvement in the partnership and projects in Mongolia. The Asia North Area is slowly taking over the project under the direction of Elder L. Todd Budge, General Authority Seventy and counselor in that area presidency.

Speaking of the transition, Elder Meurs shared his excitement for how the project will continue to move forward under the direction of Elder Budge and the new area presidency. 

“I think with these couple of projects, the leaders (in Mongolia) are starting to understand who we really are as a Church and what we do,” he said. “Elder Budge and the Asia North Area presidency will pick it up and run with it. There’s a lot of committed people across the world now that are involved in this project that won’t let it stop. So I think it’ll be terrific.”

Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia visit a fruit farm in Utah during their visit in August 2019.
Members of the Mongolian delegation visiting BYU as part of an ongoing partnership to improve food preservation systems in Mongolia visit a fruit farm in Utah during their visit in August 2019. Credit: Hannah Hughes, BYU Photo

Adding his own sentiment, Elder Budge said, “This project resonates with the people on both an emotional and practical level. The Asia North Area presidency plans to build on the wonderful work that was begun by the Asia Area presidency.”

Showing love by addressing their needs is an inspired way to serve, Elder Budge noted, adding that the work being done there will forever change the way the Church is viewed in Mongolia. 

“We are grateful for the visionary and dedicated work that has established the Church in Mongolia, and look forward to playing a role in the next chapter of unfolding of the work in this wonderful country,” he said.