By Tessa Ries
When young people are faced with the big question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” agriculture is usually not an expected response. However, as our planet faces environmental problems, such as a growing population, and one billion people who are food insecure, agriculture becomes a significant and exciting field. When I am asked, I reply, “I want to be a plant scientist.”
My reasons for being interested in agriculture are many, however at the root is my passion for helping people reach food security. No matter where we live or who we are, we are all dependent on agriculture. In reality, many of us are detached from our food system and although it sustains us, we are naïve to its realities. For those of us who are food secure, the thought that so many go hungry every day is almost unfathomable.
The first time I witnessed food insecurity was in Guatemala, and it was a pivotal moment in my life. I realized how fortunate I am to be food secure, and more importantly how I want to be a part of the movement to establish global food security. From the time I was very young, plants have fascinated me, and so I began to study them. I was raised on a crop farm, so getting close to plants was second nature; when I was not working in the field or in my garden, I was reading agronomy and horticulture texts. I was able to expand my experience with plants thanks to the World Food Prize’s Borlaug-Ruan International Internship program. I interned with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Turkey. CIMMYT is an international organization that strives to sustainably increase global food security through increasing the productivity of maize and wheat.
With CIMMYT, I was part of a team of researchers working on screening wheat for resistance to Crown Rot and Cereal Cyst Nematodes. These two diseases can cause significant yield loss. During my two-month stay, I was able to work in the lab and field identifying and collecting data from various wheat varieties with favorable characteristics. Wheat accounts for 20% of the world’s caloric intake, so it is important that scientists ensure the disease resistance and efficiencies of the crop.
Throughout my work, I often stepped back and looked at the big picture. The work at times was hard and seemed tedious, but when I stepped back I realized why it was worthwhile, I realized that it was for the nearly one billion people who are currently food insecure. My efforts helped poor farmers feed their families and communities with better varieties of wheat, so these families could make a profit on their crops, and so they can send their children to school. Since I realized that my work was helping people I had a different mentality; I was committed to magnifying my impact. After work and on weekends, I helped other researchers with their projects and learned about what they were doing.
Like the barriers to attaining food security, the opportunities for agricultural advancements are plenty. Around the world, our food systems are all very unique and we must appreciate the diversity. We must all work together and collaborate in order to have a healthy agricultural ecosystem. The hope for our children’s food supply to be bountiful cannot come true unless the whole world’s next generation is food secure. We must continue to support innovation and create collaborations for the next generation to get involved. I am so appreciative of CIMMYT and The World Food Prize, for allowing me to observe their true commitment and passion for increasing food security. I hope to mirror their commitment and passion in my everyday life, my future endeavors are forever changed. I am now inspired to further my education in plant science and continue to form multidisciplinary collaborations.
Tessa Ries of Hastings, Minnesota is a high school senior who, since the 11th grade, has officially attended the University of Minnesota (UMN) where she has taken advantage of her state’s unique Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) program for advanced high school students. She participated in the 2011 World Food Prize Global Youth Institute then, as an extension of the program, earned a 2012 Borlaug-Ruan Summer Internship at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Ankara, Turkey due to her interests in Agronomy and Plant Sciences. During her CIMMYT internship in Turkey, primarily based at a field site in Eskişehir, she gained both lab and field experience while working as a wheat pathologist.