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Opinion: Environment

#IamAg! Meet Victor, a Food Scientist at HarvestPlus

Victor Taleon Victor Taleon

When I was in primary school in Guatemala, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer working for Ferrari. During those years, I enjoyed classes on general natural sciences. Living in a small town in Guatemala, I was always aware of the agriculture in my surroundings. In middle school, I chose to study agriculture among other practical technical classes, mostly because it was outdoors and not because I was passionate about it.

In the last year of middle school, a friend of mine from the same agriculture class was applying to study at the national agricultural school (high school). I got interested too, because it was a recognized highly technical school, so I applied and eventually got accepted. In the late 1990s, less than one percent of the population in Guatemala could afford university education, and for this reason technical high schools were popular and tailored to prepare students to join the workforce at an early age.

Over the course of my three years in high school, several professors inspired me to become a scientist in agriculture. I learned that Guatemala was only one of many other countries around the world where agricultural science was not readily available. Moreover, the limited available knowledge was not widely and properly disseminated to farmers.

Now, I am a researcher in the nutrition department of HarvestPlus. My daily activities involve working with plant breeders, agronomists and nutritionists to design and conduct research related to food processing and storage of biofortified crops. Biofortified food crops are richer in micronutrients, such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron. These crops are developed using conventional breeding methods in which the plants “biofortify” themselves by loading higher levels of minerals and vitamins in their seeds and roots while they are growing. When eaten, they can provide essential micronutrients to improve nutrition and public health.

Sorting iron-rich beans in Rwanda. Credit: Mel Oluoch/HarvestPlus

Sorting iron-rich beans in Rwanda. Credit: Mel Oluoch/HarvestPlus

This is a very important area of research, as biofortified crops help people in the developing world that suffer from malnutrition to access the vitamins and minerals they need to become healthier. For example, we have worked on beans and pearl millet that are rich in iron, and sweet potato and maize that are rich in vitamin A. Studies have shown that biofortified foods can reverse iron deficiency and reduce the incidence and duration of diarrhea, one of the leading causes of preventable death in children under five.

In particular, my work includes studies on how to better retain micronutrients in the biofortified crops when processing these crops using local techniques. What I like the most in my work is that I interact with scientists from different disciplines, and I find it very rewarding that through my work I contribute to developing and promoting nutritious crops. However, there are also challenges, such as conducting research in countries where there is lack of technical capacity or where there is low motivation to conduct this work.

I think low exposure to agriculture early in life reduces the likelihood of people liking and adopting the profession. Also, more young people from rural agricultural areas migrate to urban centers. Additionally, there are low financial expectations associated with agriculture, and young people prefer other professions that they consider more lucrative. Teaching primary and middle school children that they can live a decent, happy life while working in agriculture could change their mindset and motivate them to pursue a career in the industry.

I would advise people interested in a career such as mine to find a topic to specialize in while also learning, or at least being aware of, other sectors. That will ensure that they are all-round experts able to better integrate their knowledge to make an impact. If you want to work in a global career, you could specialize in almost anything within agriculture. However, if you want to work in a specific geographical region, it is important to know the current and expected needs of the agricultural sector in that particular region and base your planning on that knowledge to ensure that you will be relevant as a professional.

Are you a young professional in agriculture with a story to share? Tweet us using #IamAg to join our campaign to inspire more young people to get involved in agricultural careers.

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