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Sarah Evanega – Leading with Science

July 8, 2021

Sarah Evanega won the Planet of Plenty award in the educator category for the work she is doing to help ensure food security across the world.

As the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, Sarah Evanega pushes for evidence-based decision making in agriculture. She is also the winner of the Planet of Plenty awards in the Educator category. We spoke to her about the role that plant science plays in producing enough nutritious and safe food for a growing population.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Sarah Evanega hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Tom:                          This is Tom Martin. And our guest is Sarah Evanega, winner in the educator category of Alltech’s Planet of Plenty Awards.

                                    Sarah, also recently received the coveted Borlaug CAST Communication Award. She is director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a global communications effort that promotes evidence-based decision making in agriculture.

                                    She is a research professor in the Department of Global Development and holds an adjunct appointment in the Section of Plant Breeding and Genetics in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell, teaching courses on Agricultural Biotechnology on the undergraduate and graduate levels.

                                    Dr. Evanega, congratulations and thanks for joining us.

Sarah:                        Thanks, Tom. It’s so nice to be here.

Tom:                          So, tell us about the Alliance for Science, what are its aims, what does it do?

Sarah:                        Yeah. The Alliance for Science is a global platform. Anyone can be part of the Alliance for Science. Any individual, any organization can join the Alliance for Science.

                                    We’re a global effort to ensure access to agricultural technologies, the information that can help us improve food security, improve environmental sustainability, and really explains the quality of life globally.

                                    We’re a communications initiative standing firmly in support of the science, trying to improve the enabling environment for plant and agricultural plants.

                                    So, we work to increase public engagement and communications around plants sciences. We work to ensure good science and farm policy making that can have a positive impact on our mission.

Tom:                          Why does science even need to be defended?

Sarah:                        Yeah. Well, that’s a good question. But, the world is certainly facing some big challenges ahead, not the least of which is feeding the many, while at the same time fighting climate change.

                                    We absolutely need science and innovation to do this to meet these big challenges. And, I think, you know, this year, this past year has been a very clear demonstration of the need for science and innovation to solve complex global problems.

                                    So, for the past year and a half, we all know we’ve been reliant on good science to get us through this pandemic that we’re in. And we’ve seen firsthand the impacts of disinformation and lack of access to science and innovation. I mean, sadly, it has literally been the difference between life and death in this case and so, we absolutely need to defend science and ensure that science and forms the policies that – that really have real world implications.

Tom:                          Is it becoming increasingly difficult to cut through all that clutter of mis- and disinformation to keep people accurately and contextually informed?

Sarah:                        Yeah. I mean, we definitely live in a time when, you know, we have information overload. We’ve got so many different social media platforms that we can communicate on, some of which are opened, some of which are closed loop.

                                    It’s – it’s an information age and I think, you know, that can – can serve a really positive purpose and it can also, you know, be a disservice. And so, I think the important thing is is that we make sure that science is well represented in those information platforms and we get, you know, bonafide experts out there communicating and sharing the good science informed material information that can help people make good decisions about their life.

                                    And so, part of what we’re doing at the Alliance for Science is really trying to help equip people, young people, old people on sciences, journalists, you name it, farmers, people from all kinds of different walks of life to have the kind of communication skills that they need to get out there and share good science-based information, so that we – we have it informed public and that we have policy makers who – who can – who can stand firmly in support of the science.

Tom:                          The young people who participate in the Alliance for Science program, where do they come from?

Sarah:                        Gosh, they come from all over the world. So, in our training program broadly we’ve had about 800 trainees from roughly 50 countries from around the world.

                                    So, if you look at the map of – of where the Alliance for Science had representation in our training program, it really spans the entire globe with Antarctica as an exception. [laughs]

                                    And so, it really truly – we truly are a global alliance and that’s something we’re very proud of. We have a lot of representation in our global fellows program from across the developing world. We’ve had a lot of fantastic champions from across Latin America, from across South Africa, fantastic representation from South Asia and really vibrant group from the Philippines as well.

                                    So, I mean it really is a global – a global alliance and the champions who come to our programs are leading efforts across the globe.

Tom:                          And what sorts of issues are these students working to solve?

Sarah:                        Well, they are all coming on into our programs with a passion for these issues. So, they come to the Alliance for Science already with, you know, sharing our mission to advocate for access to agriculture innovations.

                                    So, these are people who might be concerned for example about youth employment or youth engagement in agriculture in their home countries of Zimbabwe for example. And so, they really want to develop a strategic plan to help ignite excitement for agriculture among youth in Zimbabwe for example.

                                    They might be from a farming community, who really wants to advocate for access to improve seed and other agricultural innovations that can actually help them grow resilient – resilient crops that are relevant in their country context. Maybe they’re advocating for a good biotech policies that will help ensure access to those seeds.

                                    We’ve also had a champion from Bangladesh for example who has essentially after participating in our program grown up his own Alliance for Science like organization called Farming Future Bangladesh, that is a communication initiative that is working together with the Alliance to do many of the same kinds of activities, but specifically in Bangladesh.

                                    So, I mean, really the opportunities are endless and the ideas and the projects that flow from these fellows really are driven by the issues that are the most relevant in their country context that they care deeply about. Very home grown.

Tom:                          Well, where are you seeing importance successes in those initiatives?

Sarah:                        Well, we’ve seen partners in Nigeria for example works together to advocate for access to Bt cowpea, Bt maize, and other improved seeds that could help Nigerian farmers move away from a lot of the, you know, import – imports that they are relying on as well as accessing improved seed for crops that are so important in their country context.

                                    So, since – since our Nigerian fellows for example begun working together, they and other partners around the globe like the Africa Agriculture Technology Foundation, the Open Forum Biotechnology in Africa, many commodity groups and farmer organizations across Nigeria have worked together over the last couple of years and are now seeing tremendous success and having access to new biotech crops that are going to help Nigerian farmers.

                                    You know, in the US, cowpea is kind of, you know, strange thing that we don’t eat very much. I mean, I grew up eating it on New Year’s day for good luck,  [laughs]  but it’s not really staple in our – in our diet.

                                    In Nigeria, it’s such an important source of protein and so, having access to those legumes and source of protein is so important in that cultural context.

Tom:                          I think it’s safe to say by now that climate change is being recognized by most people as one of our most serious challenges. But, I’m wondering, what are some other serious challenges that could also benefit from scientific solutions?

Sarah:                        Well, I think you’ve – you’ve said it right there. Climate change sort of looms over everything, right?

Tom:                          Uh-hmm.

Sarah:                        And, in agriculture and plant science, we are up against this enormous challenge of feeding the, you know, 9 or 10 billion people who are going to inhabit the earth in a few short years, while at the same time, addressing climate change.

                                    And that’s a big wicked problem because agriculture is the contributor to the climate change and all kinds of different ways. But, you know, when I look at the kind of innovation happening in plant science, whether it’s, you know, the classical genetic engineering or, you know, newer emerging technologies like CRISPR.

                                    I see so much research innovation happening right now that’s going to help us feed the many, while at the same time, reducing agriculture’s negative environmental footprint.

                                    We see crops being developed that are not going to need the same amount of extra fertilizer and other innovations that are going to reduce nitrogen fertilizer, which is fantastic.

                                    We see, you know, innovations that are reducing emissions in agriculture and improving soil conditions the conservation agriculture. We see applications that are reducing pesticide use, like this exciting Bt eggplant that’s being grown in Bangladesh.

                                    So many exciting applications that are happening right now through genetic engineering, through CRISPR, and a range of other technologies that are helping us do agriculture in a much cleaner and greener way.

                                    And so, while it’s an enormous challenge, I am optimistic that we – that we can achieve our – our challenge of feeding the many at the same time we’re using agriculture’s negative environmental footprint.

Tom:                          You cited many innovations that are really interesting really exciting, but the one that really, I think, qualifies for mind-blowing is CRISPR.

                                    And, I’m just wondering if you could expand on that. Anything that you can think of that’s going on in the CRISPR area that agriculture in particular might benefit from?

Sarah:                        Absolutely. We’re -- I share your enthusiasm for CRISPR, I think it’s a really exciting tool that is going to be a game-changer in food and agriculture. So, I’m excited about applications of CRISPR that are going to help improve the environment.

                                    I was just reading recently about some genes in cattle that are associated with methane emissions that, you know, can be – can be addressed to reduce methane emissions from cattle that’s an exciting CRISPR application.

                                    There are applications across the – across crop improvement that are also going to help us grow more using less resources and having less negative impact on the environment.

                                    I’m also really excited about the implications for nutrition, so using CRISPR to crops that are going to be more nutritious, that will allow us to grow more diverse crops that can stand up to climate change and other stresses.

                                    So, for example if we look at, you know, the first generation of genetically engineered crops for example, you know 99% of all the crops that are genetically engineered that are growing out there in the world are essentially just four crops, right? You have the – 50% of it is soy, 30% maize, 15% is cotton, and 4% is canola.

And so, most crops haven’t actually benefitted from those tools and CRISPR is very much democratizing tool that many researchers can use from public institutions, small and medium businesses, startups. It’s not limited to a few big companies. It’s a very democratizing tool.

And what that means is that we can use this tool to improve specialty crops to improve crops that are important maybe in a developing country, but not traded, yeah, globally. And so, there’s so much opportunity to – to improve a range of different crops that can help combat malnutrition, undernutrition, etc.

And also, I think, you know, in the context of the US, there’s a number of products that are being developed that – that are going to be a great interest to consumers that are going to help us consume healthier, more healthy convenient food.

So, there’s startups that are working to really improve our produce aisle. And I’m excited about that because I think that’s going to be a real game-changer for the acceptance of – of the role that plant breeding innovation can play improving our life.

Tom:                          There’s another matter that you brought up earlier that I’d like to touch on here and it has to do with population.

                                    The world seems to be going in two different directions between developing nations and developed nations. Developed seem to be depopulating. We’re getting into negative population growth, while at the same time, the developing world is going in the opposite direction.

Does that figure into your calculations as a scientist and as somebody who’s thinking about a planet of plenty and how to feed the world?

Sarah:                        I think one of the important points that – that I think a lot about is the need to engage more young people in plant and agricultural science and in the – in the careers associated with agriculture and producing the food that we need.

                                    So, in a lot of developing country context as well as the US for that matter, you know we’re not seeing young people getting into the – the field of agriculture. And I think there’s a lot of reasons for that.

                                    But, what we do see is that when young – when young people see agriculture as a good business as an exciting business where they can innovate and use state of the art technology, then they’re more likely to engage in agriculture-related fields.

                                    And so, I think, though, it goes back to the – our core mission of ensuring access to these innovations, these innovations that excite people that engage young people in agriculture that inspire entrepreneurship, so that, you know, it can become a good business and attract the young brightest minds.

                                    And I think in the context of the US, we have a great opportunity to engage more – more diverse people in plant and agricultural science as well as in agriculture. And I think that that needs to be one of our priorities in the US is to really make sure that the face of agriculture, the face of agricultural science and the face of plant sciences is as inclusive and diverse.

Tom:                          I’d like to circle back to the Alliance for Science and talk about its funding. I think it’s worth noting, you do not accept funding from corporate agriculture. Why is that and how is the effort supported?

Sarah:                        Yeah. So, we work on some controversial issue areas and we – we’re a neutral organization at a US university. And to maintain that trust that I think we’ve inspired across bringing the stakeholders, we do not accept funding from industry.

                                    And I think that’s important for us to maintain our – our neutral and very science conformed position, we are driven by science, not by corporate agendas for example.

                                    We are largely funded through philanthropic organizations. A great deal of our funding does come from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We also have received funding from US government agencies like the USDA, USAID. So, we have some small family foundations that have given to us.

And we – we really very much in spirit of transparency and so we do list all of our funding sources on our website.

Tom:                          Sarah, I know that you’ve been instrumental in launching the AWARE initiative. AWARE is standing for Advancing Women in Agriculture through Research and Education. If you could tell us about this program?

Sarah:                        Yeah. I work on closely with a colleague on this initiative that we launched a few years ago. And our goal really was to create a cross cutting initiative, so that we would consider the needs of women in agriculture in everything that we do here in our unit.

                                    So, that ranges from really encouraging and supporting student research that will benefit women to ensuring that all of the global projects that we’re running consider for example the needs of women farmers in various country context.

                                    So, it really is about, you know, thinking about the role of women across all areas of agriculture in all that we do. And part of that also is in through our, you know, capacity building program, ensuring that we have good representation of women.

                                    In many countries where we work, women are the ones who are – are –are holding down the fort at the farm for example as – as men seek of farm labor opportunities and so forth.

                                    And so, it’s really important that, you know, in plant science, we’re thinking about the needs of women as they process these crops, not just grow them, but process them.

And so, the AWARE initiative is really all encompassing and cross cutting thinking about, okay, what are the needs of women and how can we adjust those needs through everything that we do from our research to our education opportunities.

Tom:                          We have talked about issues and challenges and obstacles as well as some amazing innovations and forward-looking programs that are going on right now.

                                    What makes you optimistic about a Planet of Plenty?

Sarah:                        I am an optimist and I, you know, I’m a plant scientist and I really do feel like the role that plants breeding and plant science can play in helping us achieve a Planet of Plenty in this – in this changing climate is so crucial.

                                    So, we, in plant science, we have the opportunities to create this Planet of Plenty to produce the food, nutritious – safe nutritious food that’s going to feed our growing population, while at the same time, playing a critical role in adapting to climate change as well as mitigating climate change.

                                    So, plant science I think is so full of opportunities and it’s my hope that, you know, as we inspire a new generation to get into plant science in a much more diverse generation to get into plant science, we’ll have new decision makers at the table, we’ll have new innovators at the table, and we really will be able to achieve this Planet of Plenty in – in a world full of enormous challenges.

Tom:                          Yes. That’s Sara Evanega, research professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York overlooking beautiful Cayuga Lake.

                                    And, she’s also the winner in the educator category of Alltech’s Planet of Plenty Awards.

                                    Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah:                        Thank you, Tom. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today.

Tom:                          I’m Tom Martin and thanks for listening.