How Overseas Research & Information Sharing Benefits Our Farms
By Marvin Pritts
Ever wonder what those Cornell professors do when they run off to another country? Oftentimes it’s to attend a conference, but occasionally we are asked to help a particular group of farmers with their production practices. Some may ask if we should be helping farmers in other countries—won’t they just end up competing with us in New York? And given that there are problems here at home, shouldn’t Cornell faculty just stay put and work on solving local problems?
In April, I had a chance to visit Chin State in the country of Myanmar. This country has been relatively isolated from the rest of the world, as it was under a military dictatorship for 50 years. Recently, it has had elections, so a democratic government is now in place. However, some of the outlying regions continue to have ethnic violence. Chin signed a peace treaty with the federal government in 2016, so it is now safe for foreigners to enter.
Although it is now safe to travel to Chin, this region has been cut off from the rest of Myanmar, and the world, for most of its existence. There is no real industry in Chin State. Travel to the capital city, Hakha, is an 11-hour drive on dirt roads from the nearest city with an airport (which has just one flight a day). Farming villages are even farther from Hahka. The roads in this state are one-lane, steep, and curved, with no guardrails and 1,000-foot dropoffs. During the rainy season, roads become impassable because of mud and landslides. Most of the country speaks Burmese and is Buddhist, while many different languages are spoken in Chin and Chin people are mostly Christian. All of these differences reinforce the isolation and makes education in this region difficult.
There is little to no flat land in Chin State. The hillsides are too steep for most grazing animals, except for goats. But having goats is risky, because they can escape through fences and eat valuable crops. The rain stops after the rainy season, so farmers then endure six months of drought. The capital city is too far to take goods to market, especially given the state of the roads.
People who live in villages in Chin are malnourished. It is estimated that 40 percent of the population suffers from protein, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies. Our task was to visit these villages, determine if anything could be done to help increase fruit and vegetable production and consumption, train extension educators, and advise about the curriculum used in the state agriculture institutes and the agricultural university at Yezin.
The people of Chin State were exceptionally friendly and open to new ideas. We shared information and techniques for drip irrigation, sources of nitrogen fertilizer, soil management, postharvest handling, and garden design, and I hope these will gain traction and be implemented. Farmers in the United States do not have to fear competition from a country that is struggling to feed itself.
Such activities in developing countries help spread Cornell’s reputation abroad. It also could pay dividends for us in the future. For example, apple and pear germ plasm grow wild in the hills. Developing a good relationship with Myanmar could give us access to new germplasm in the future. Establishing such relationships increases the probability that bright students will come to the United States to study. Also, when we can work with growers in another country to reduce their pesticide use and minimize environmental impacts, it benefits all of us. Myanmar is strategically located between China and India, so having friendly relations with them is politically beneficial. Finally, it is simply the right thing to do.
So while spending time in developing countries may not appear to benefit New York growers, we are laying the groundwork for future dividends to be paid.