Global food security a focus of Texas A&M student innovators

Jan 4, 2013
by WLJ

At Texas A&M University, the next generation is being readied to take on the fight against global hunger. “How do we address the distance between 1 billion people who go to bed hungry and the other 1 billion who wake up overfed?” asks Texas A&M student Beau Barnette, a landscape architecture major who aspires to use his design skills to make communities more aware of food and waste issues.

Barnette is part of a team of Texas A&M students that won an international competition, the “Thought for Food (TFF) Challenge,” which invites students from around the world to submit project plans aimed at solving the global food crisis.

Along with Barnette, the team from Texas A&M, Team Giving Tree, includes Erin Ponsonby, an international politics and diplomacy major; Aaron Kotwal, landscape architecture; Jailene Santana, international environmental studies; and Ryan Pratt, who studies chemical engineering.

Team Giving Tree’s idea revolves around a growing trend known as the “Eco- Park.” These community parks vary in their features, but focus on bringing education and awareness of environmental and food issues to people using hands-on experiences. The team devised a plan for a national system of Eco-Parks designed to help people understand what happens to food waste and what steps they can take to reduce it.

The team’s version of an Eco-Park features an area with open recreation, using low-maintenance native plants and a storm water retention pond. The plan proposes to educate visitors on sustainable farming with demonstration gardens where volunteers can use space to demonstrate planting and composting methods. A farmer’s market area is included to encourage support of local food production, and a preparation area would show visitors how food can be prepared with minimal waste. And the plan proposes a speaker’s corner where people can share their ideas on the food system.

Barnette and his teammates got encouragement along the way from former Texas A&M student Julie Borlaug, ’97, granddaughter of the late Norman Borlaug, the Texas A&M professor who won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing wheat varieties that saved millions from starvation and was known as the “Father of the Green Revolution.” Julie, who currently serves as associate director for external relations for the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M, “was hugely encouraging,” notes Barnette. “She met with the Aggie teams and listened to our ideas.”

“I was so impressed with the TFF program, I offered to help recruit U.S. university teams and Beau’s team happened to be the winners,” Julie says. “My grandfather always believed that the success of the Green Revolution was due to the hundreds of young scientists and farmers he trained that were willing to take a chance on a new approach. I know my grandfather would be supportive of TFF because it emphasizes innovation and highlights young college students who are open to changing the world.”

Julie says she supports the idea of a nationwide Eco-Park system because, “We have become too removed from agriculture and the park offers a great way to draw people into real discussions about agriculture.”

Barnette acknowledges that Eco-Parks alone won’t solve the problem of global food insecurity, but, “they can help us more intimately understand the context of the problems and encourage novel solutions.”

He says in the future he’d like to run his own landscape architecture firm with a focus on green recreational space development, planned communities and urban agriculture.

Barnette says his entrepreneurial spirit is growing thanks to his involvement with Startup Aggieland, Texas A&M’s burgeoning, student-run business accelerator, located in the Texas A&M University Research Park on the western edge of campus.

“It’s a cross-college collaborative effort to help Texas A&M student entrepreneurs with businesses or very strong business projects to develop further by providing them with general business resources,” Barnette explains. “After our grand opening next semester, we will seek to provide more resources for those who need to develop their projects, but aren’t quite ready to start a business.”

Not every innovator is a business person, says Barnette, and not all business people have innovative ideas, so one of the goals of Startup Aggieland is to bring people with various skill sets together and give them resources and a venue to form viable businesses.

Texas A&M students spent a weekend at Startup Aggieland for the “3-Day Startup” lock-in event where they were challenged to brainstorm and come up with viable business ideas by the end of the weekend.

Barnette is a proponent of the free flow of ideas and encourages those in his generation to “learn, listen and be heard. If you have a welldeveloped concept, you will find plenty of ears.”

For their winning Eco- Park concept, Team Giving Tree was flown to Pittsburgh this past October for the One Young World Summit, a gathering of 1,300 delegates under the age of 30 representing 183 countries. “I dare say we were the only Texans there,” laughs Barnette. “It was a life-changing experience. There were a few dozen speakers ranging from Bill Clinton and Muhammad Yunus [the Nobel Prizewinning economist], to the CEOs of Barclays and Siemens. I met amazing young people, learned a lot, and came out very inspired.” — WLJ