Using Agriculture to Build BridgesShare
In her high school advanced placement (AP) biology class, Tara Mittelberg learned about Norman Borlaug, the renowned scientist, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner who devoted his career to battling hunger and poverty across the globe. This sparked her interest in agriculture and prompted her to pursue the opportunity to be an Emerging Leader in the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge during the 2014–2015 academic year.
“I’ve always been interested in biology, but didn’t see myself going into medicine,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to help people, and the story of Norman Borlaug showed me that agriculture is a way to use biology for humanitarian purposes.”
Prior to being chosen as an Emerging Leader, Mittelberg interned in agricultural research labs in Mississippi and Brazil through the World Food Prize. “I wanted to learn more about the business and policy aspects of agriculture,” she says about her pursuit of an internship with the Global Food Challenge, “so I was excited about this opportunity.”
Cooperatives and mentors
A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mittelberg may not have grown up on a farm, but she wanted an immersive agricultural experience, which the Global Food Challenge provided. “I spent a week at Mid-Kansas Cooperative and learned about cooperative systems in the United States, including Land O’Lakes’ model,” she says. “We also met many interesting smallholder farmers during our trip to Malawi and Zambia in Africa and saw how their cooperative system worked. It was interesting to see the differences and the similarities.”
Mittelberg says a highlight of her time as an Emerging Leader was the mentorship opportunity it offered. “I learned about biotechnology and seed science from Matt Fanta, my mentor at Land O’Lakes,” she says. “That technical knowledge was complemented by my mentor at Northwestern University, Amanda Logan, an anthropologist who conducts research on food systems in Ghana. She was able to offer a social and historical perspective.”
Research in Brazil
Mittelberg earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science and international studies from Northwestern University in 2017. Currently, she is doing research in Londrina, Brazil through a Fulbright U.S. Student Study Research Grant. Her research is focused on herbicide-resistant weeds and the economic, systemic and educational challenges farmers face in managing them.
“It seems simple to prevent herbicide resistance; you just rotate your weed-control practices and your crops,” she says. “However, in practice, it’s more complicated — and expensive. So I’m talking with farmers about the weed control practices they’re using and the barriers they face.” Mittelberg credits her experience as an Emerging Leader and learning about biotechnology with helping her better understand this complex issue.
After her research grant ends in December, Mittelberg plans to move to Washington, D.C. There, she’ll decide whether to pursue a career in in policy, research, academia or international development. She could also see a Ph.D. in her future. Whatever her path, she’ll take her Global Food Challenge experience with her.
“The most important thing I took away from my experience was the ability to communicate with people, both within the agricultural sector and outside of it, and to build bridges between them,” she says. “Land O’Lakes gave me the opportunity to learn so much through the enrichment opportunities it provided, including farm visits and travel opportunities — within the United States and globally. This experience gave me the chance to explore.”
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