Global food security reached national consciousness in 2007 and 2008, when food riots in more than 25 countries raised awareness that many people in the world do not have enough to eat.
Virginia Tech has been at the forefront of food security issues since 1991, with grants managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development (OIRED) alone totaling $148 million.
Work to increase tomato production in Mali, improve the handling of peanuts in Uganda, to grow better eggplant in Bangladesh, and to plan better varieties of beans in Haiti means that people will lead better lives. Children will be better nourished, and the extra income will allow them to go to school.
For one person at Virginia Tech, his life mission has been to combat global hunger.
Growing up as the son of a British civil servant in colonial Burman, S.K. De Datta, associate vice president for international affairs and director of OIRED, said he never thought he would one day wind up at an American university in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But his fascination with how the natural world works led him to study soil science. That choice would later land him at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
There, De Datta was able to pursue research that could address food insecurity issues. In 1968, he published his findings that a variety of rice, IR-8, produced 10 times the yield of traditional rice. This discovery and associated technologies led to the so-called Green Revolution, a development in agriculture that allowed the production of food to keep up with the growing populations of Asia.
Shortly after arriving at Virginia Tech in 1991, De Datta won a multiyear, multimillion dollar grant from the United States Agency of International Development. This created the Integrated Pest Management Collaborative Research Support Program, which raises the standard of living through sustainable agricultural practices in developing countries around the world.
This project led to others, and now OIRED manages projects worth $88 million in 44 countries around the globe.
“What S.K. and his team have done is remarkable,” said Mark McNamee, senior vice president and provost at Virginia Tech. “Their initiatives abroad boost Virginia Tech’s stature and increase our global recognition, affording more partnership opportunities for our researchers and more avenues for our students to secure jobs in the international marketplace.”
The money funds such efforts as Jeff Alwang’s research. A professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Alwang has discovered ways to improve soil quality and reduce erosion on the steep slopes of Ecuador and Bolivia.
“The work I’m doing on growing potatoes in mountainous areas of the Andes, I would not be able to do without the support I’ve gotten,” Alwang said.
In September 2010, OIRED won the largest single award that Virginia Tech has ever received in any field. The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded the university a $28 million grant to revamp the agriculture curriculum in Senegal’s institutions of higher education over five years.
In addition to addressing global food security, such efforts also raise the stature of Virginia Tech, making the university, in the words of George Norton, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, “the envy of the land grant system.”
Under De Datta’s leadership, the Virginia Tech campus in India is being developed. The Education Abroad office has doubled the number of students going overseas each year. Today, more than 1,200 Virginia Tech students annually go to a range of places including Botsw ana and Dubai, not just the traditional countries in Europe. De Datta has also championed gender as a key element of international research and development projects, supporting the Women in International Development office and its mission of ensuring that women benefit from development work.
But of all of his endeavors over the years, De Datta said he ranks his work in food security near the top.
“To make a difference in the life of a farming family in Haiti or Mali or Bangladesh, to know that children are now drinking milk and getting adequate nutrition, is immensely satisfying,” he said.
In 1968, as a young agronomist at the International Rice Research Institute, S.K. De Datta published his findings that a semi-dwarf variety of rice, known as IR-8, could produce 10 times the yield of traditional rice.
India had been near a mass famine, and the introduction of the new variety of rice produced a revolution in agriculture that came to be known as the Green Revolution. The development meant that agricultural production was able to keep pace with the population growth of that time, allowing millions of people to benefit.
De Datta went on to write a comprehensive book about rice, “Principles and Practices of Rice Production,” that was published in 1981 by John Wiley. For his contribution to the Green Revolution, De Datta has received numerous national and international awards, including a Presidential Citation from the president of the Philippines in 2004.
S.K. De Datta was the main force behind the establishment of the International Support Services office in April 2004, a unit that assists foreign scholars who come to Virginia Tech with visa issues. The in-house office, with two full-time lawyers and one full-time associate, is unusual among universities. By providing this service, the university saves foreign scholars thousands of dollars.
The Office of International Research, Education, and Development is part of the university’s Outreach and International Affairs division and supports the international mission of Virginia Tech through collaborative programs in research, education, and technical assistance. The office oversees projects in more than 40 countries.
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