Why is a management student at los Andes involved in food, famine and models of sustainable agriculture?

May 28, 2018

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Published in General News

By: Juan Pablo Casadiego Guevara

Undergraduate student in Management

Universidad de los Andes

This is one of the questions I have most frequently been asked over the past year and half, while being increasingly involved in agro-related issues. To many, his answer does not seem to make sense, but it does entirely. If we think for a moment about the value chain for a specific food, this involves a number of actors, from the farmer to the processor, factories, distributors, shopkeepers, supermarkets, etc. Each one of these processes involves managers and functional areas of disciplines such as marketing, operations, and finance. In one way or another, the decisions made by managers, lawyers, scientists, and agricultural workers respond to a demanding and growing market which many do not fully understand and that, today, is facing serious problems.

One of the controversial issues in agriculture, which we have now been hearing about for years, has to do with genetically modified organisms or GMOs, as they are commonly known. Over the years, we have been bombarded with information about GMOs from different sources and I am sure that for many, they conjure images of cancer, multinationals, corruption, injustice, and environmental pollution. These terms were, for a time, part of my position and arguments in relation to the topic. However, a few months ago, I had the opportunity to learn more about GMOs, not on Internet or Facebook, but in direct contact with science, public policies, and other facts that changed my mind.

The scientist and current director of Agrobio Colombia, María Andrea Uscátegui, invited me to, as she refers to it, find out the truth about GMOs. I learned, first from her and then by closely reading publications by the Spanish scientist José Miguel Mulet, that much of what we hear about these advances, misinforms more than we can imagine. Beyond my new position regarding genetic engineering, I think that it is important that we all think about how GMOs can affect us and to what extent they are part of our diets. We are probably not all going to work in some part of the food value chain or in the food industry or, even less so, in cultivating the land. But if I am sure of one thing, it is that we all eat and that it is going to be increasingly difficult to feed a growing population.

To be able to take the necessary steps to respond to these challenges, we all, regardless of our professional training, age, socio-economic situation or nationality, have stay informed. It is for this reason that I set out to make the knowledge about GMOs from different perspectives available to the people close to me, and what better space in which to discuss the topic than Universidad de los Andes.

I told María Andrea about the School of Management's Sustainability Area and the great progress it has made in terms of managerial education targeting the Sustainable Development Goals. This gave birth to the idea of organizing and event in which Agrobio, the School and the students joined forces to reach one of our goals: to develop a more informed opinion regarding GMOs in the participants, while respecting personal positions and arguments. I began the arduous task of planning the event together with a volunteer from the Uniandina Environmental Committee, who is in her fourth semester at the School of Management, Francisca Rico. Thanks to Francisca's dedication and support, today, I can say that everything turned out perfectly, and we all know that an event of such great magnitude requires time and persistence.

The event, called Transgénicos: Ciencia y Sociedad (Transgenics: Science and Society) took place on Wednesday 25th of April in the Lleras auditorium at Universidad de los Andes. The agenda was divided into two sessions. In the first session, we presented the award-winning documentary on genetically modified food, called Food Evolution, a production of the US Institute of Food Technologists, which, through scientific evidence, seeks to present a different perspective of GMOs. We then went on to a panel discussion with four people who, from different fields of training and conceptions, led a dialogue on GMOs in Colombia.

Our panelists were: María Andrea Uscátegui, researcher and consultant for Agrobio Colombia; Arnulfo Cuprita, an agricultural worker who has been cultivating genetically modified cotton for a number of years; professor and researcher in biotechnology at the School of Science, Jinneth Lorena Castro; and Bart Van Hoof, a professor at the School of Management, who works in the area of sustainable agribusiness. We thank each and every one of them for accepting our invitation and sharing their valuable knowledge and experiences with our participants.

As well as what we learned about GMOs, Francisca and I are left with a feeling of enormous gratitude for all the people who believed in us and contributed in one way or another to the organization of this event. Many thanks to the marketing team which designed and disseminated the advertising; to professor Joaquín Caraballo who, as well as being an excellent moderator for the panel, supported us throughout the organization and right up to the end of the event. We thank all those from the management area who helped us with the logistics, advertising, and procedures involving management. Thank you to everyone for filling us with joy and hope by showing us that together and with passion, we can achieve great things.

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