Montana State University

To solve global problems, ‘attract the brightest students to agriculture,’ MSU professor tells international board

April 9, 2015 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Robert Bertram, chief scientist for USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, speaks at the annual Board for International Food and Agricultural Develpment meeting Thursday, April 9, 2015 in the Strand Union Ballroom at Montana State University in Bozeman. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

David Sands says there is no limit to the global problems that his students at Montana State University can solve. His students have found ways to fortify Egyptian street bread with lysine, to improve Ethiopian barley and find new sources of important nutrients.

The MSU professor of plant sciences and plant pathology told the members of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD) meeting at MSU April 9-10 that one of the most important things the board could do to solve some of the world’s food problems was to encourage the study of agriculture by some of America’s brightest students.

“We need to turn our educational system around and get the very sharpest kids (in agriculture),” said Sands, who was a part of a panel of three MSU faculty members who are innovating ways to solve world food issues. In addition to Sands, Florence Dunkel, also a professor of plant sciences and pathology, and Ed Dratz, biochemistry, shared their work with the BIFAD membership.

Sands pointed out that the SAT scores of agriculture students nationwide is at the bottom of all academic areas.

“Find kids who were going to be rocket scientists (and attract them to agriculture) and excite them, and you will end up solving some of the world’s problems,” said Sands, who teaches an interdisciplinary course to MSU freshmen designed to ignite their enthusiasm for solving plant and environmental research.

Sands is an example of such creativity. He said he came to MSU 35 years ago to solve a fungus that attacks barley has found new ways to innovate on crop research. He won a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to combat striga, a weed that devastates African crops, using fungus inserted with a toothpick with seeds as they are planted. He believes he can he may be able to trigger cycles of rain using Pseudomonas syringae, a bacterium with an ice-­nucleating protein that causes frostbite in plants.

Dunkel has worked to eliminate malaria in a small village in Mali and is now working with the Crow Reservation to help the tribe find a path to better health. Dratz told BIFAD that he is using biochemistry to improve health in natural ways in such areas as zinc deficiency rather than create chemical medicines to treat disease.

The panel was just the beginning of an afternoon devoted to showing the members of the BIFAD board innovative work done at MSU. In turn, members of the board also shared their work with MSU students, faculty, staff and members of the Bozeman community.

MSU President Waded Cruzado, a member of the board who was appointed by President Barack Obama, is hosting the meeting of fellow board members. This is only the second time in its history that the six-member board has met outside Washington, D.C.

“This is a historic day,” Cruzado said in opening the meetings. “It’s an opportunity (for us at MSU) to reach out to world leaders in the area of food and agriculture, to those who are involved in food security and eradicating hunger from the world.”

BIFAD was established by Title XII of the Foreign Assistance Act for the purpose of advising the United States Agency for International Development about ways that universities, particularly the land-grant institutions, can help the agency achieve its goals for agricultural development. 

The two-day meeting opened with a presentation by Rob Bertram, chief scientist at USAID, on the USAID Feed the Future research priorities. Reducing poverty and child stunting, or failure to grow, which is caused by chronic malnutrition, are two of the organization’s main endeavors. Focus of much of the agencies work are problems in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, he said.

“Agricultural growth continues to be the best resource in reducing poverty,” Bertram said.

Bertram later gave a presentation with Montague “Tag” Demment, vice president for International Programs at APLU on international food security. World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejeta, winner of the World Food Prize for his development of a drought-resistant sorghum for Africa as well as Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agriculture at Purdue University, spoke with MSU agriculture students. BIFAD board member Marty McVey, president of McVey & Associates who is running for mayor of Houston, Texas, spoke to the MSU Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship about entrepreneurship and international development.

The board’s public meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m. Friday, April 10, in SUB Ballroom A. KUSM MontanaPBS will stream the proceedings live.

Cruzado will moderate a panel of presidents from Montana tribal colleges followed by a question-and-answer period at 8:45 a.m. Friday.  Members of the panel will include Carole Falcon-Chandler, president of the Aaniih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation; Billie Jo Kipp, president of the Blackfeet Community College, and David Yarlott, president of Little Big Horn College.

In addition, Cruzado will moderate the panel, “Decision Making to Enhance Food Security and Resilience,” at 11:15 a.m. The panelists include Sarah Janzen, assistant professor in Agricultural Economics and Economics, Selena Ahmed, assistant professor in Health and Human Development, and Eric Raile, visiting assistant professor in political science.  The meeting will conclude with a Q&A period.

More information about the BIFAD meeting at MSU may be found here.


Maggie Hammett (406) 994-2341,

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