In Diplomacy Lab, University Students Team Up with State Department to Tackle Global Food Insecurity

November 20, 2014

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Textile Trade Affairs has partnered with the University of Virginia and the University of New Mexico to find solutions to food policy challenges. As part of the Department of State’s Diplomacy Lab project, which aims to foster creativity and outside-the-box problem solving, university students have the opportunity to explore and tackle real-world challenges, working under the guidance of faculty members who are authorities in their fields to develop substantive policy recommendations.

In the spring of 2014, participating students from the University of Virginia surveyed effective strategies for combatting post-harvest loss. The students were divided into three groups, each one covering a different commodity and country – potatoes in Bangladesh, coffee in Honduras and cocoa in Ghana.

At the conclusion of the study, each team provided a detailed report on suggested policy and practical solutions that could reduce post-harvest loss in each location. Increasing the use of vacuum-sealed storage bags to minimize oxygen exposure, promoting access to microcredit for farmers, and adopting better pricing schemes were just a few of the suggestions the students devised. Their reports are currently being reviewed by the interagency community to determine which suggestions could be feasible on the ground.

Building on the success of its collaboration with the University of Virginia, the Department of State is now working with the University of New Mexico to create a virtual role-playing game to show the trade-offs that can happen in agricultural policy. Players will make choices (such as making agriculture more “green”) and see how those choices play out globally in terms of food security and economic growth.

For instance, if students choose to reduce the amount of food grown in the United States, American food security may not be significantly impacted, but European food security might be affected through changes in trade flows. If Europe then imports more food from Brazil, more forests might need to be cut down to keep up with the rising demand.

The idea behind using this model is to illustrate the complexity of agriculture in addressing food security, sustainability and economic growth. Students from international studies, statistics and mathematics, and computer science backgrounds are playing a role in developing the game. The partnership will last into the spring semester of 2015, with the hopes of the game going live potentially in conjunction with the World Food Prize announcement ceremony in June 2015.