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Agriculture and the Pharmaceutical Industry; Not so Distant Relatives

Posted by Eric Brenner on August 9th, 2010

Well, I am finally done with my summer internship in Costa Rica. I came back to Texas about a week ago, and I am ready to jump back on the saddle to tackle my last semester as a graduate student. Even though it was hard to come back, I am ready to be back into the routine, and I am looking forward to graduate this December. This also means that I need to jump on the bandwagon and start looking for a job very soon.

If you have not been following my blogs, I spent my summer break working as an intern with the Ministry of Agriculture in Costa Rica. I was incorporated with DSOREA (Dirección Superior de Operaciones Regionales y de Extensión). This is the department inside the ministry of agriculture that manages, oversees, and implements the extension services in all the Costa Rican territory.

Up to this point, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences throughout the course of my master’s degree. Working with the ministry gave the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds like extension service specialists, agencies, universities, producers and farmers. But without a doubt, the best part was the opportunity to travel all around the country in order to analyze the extension service system, and evaluate the implementation process throughout the different regions around the country.

Many of these places I had the opportunity to visit are prominently known all around the world for its biodiversity and beauty. These National Reserves are sanctuaries for a wide array of ecosystems that support a rich variety of flora and fauna. Walking through the dense vegetation of rain forest, I found myself surrounded by the soothing sound nature, which helped me understand better how unique our planet is and how important is for us to take care of these ecosystems. I learned a great deal about the rain forests and other protected areas through specialists from the ministry, and how these specilists are actively implementing agricultural practices that are environmentally friendly. Overall, this experience helped me realize how agriculture is intrinsically related to many aspects of our lives that transcend beyond the production aspect, but we somehow fail to understand.

Irazu Volcano’s Crater

Coati at Irazu National Park

For instance, many people might not realize how closely agriculture, pharmaceutical, and the health industries are associated to each other. Many medical products like ointments, latex gloves, x-ray film, gelatin for capsules and heart valves come from the agriculture industry. In fact, the rain-forest supports millions of plant, animal, and insect species that supply some of the components that help create products like muscle relaxants, steroids and cancer drugs. More important is the fact that there are new drugs still awaiting to be discovered that have the potential to cure AIDS, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses.

This is one of the greatest examples on how many agriculture careers permeate into other fields, and how industries outside the agriculture arena greatly depend on agriculture professionals for their operations. The World needs more agriculture professionals in fields like horticulture, zoology, entomology, and other similar degrees that can help find the cure for diseases that could be encapsulated in plants, insects, animals, and other kinds of wild life. We also need ecosystem, wildlife and fisheries science professionals that will help educate people how to protect and conserve our natural resources.

This tiny beetle was the size of my hand

Another pretty big bug

Experts estimate that around 137 plant, animal, and insect species are lost every single day due to rain-forest deforestation. This equates to 50,000 species a year. As the rain-forest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.

Presently, hundreds of prescription drugs currently sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rain-forest ingredients. However, less than 1% of the tropical trees and plants in the rain-forests have actually been tested by scientists.

On my way to Tortuguero National Park

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, scientists have identified over 3000 plants that are active against cancer cells, and 70% of these plants are found in the rain-forest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rain-forest.

Not only agriculture has a broad array of career opportunities throughout many industries, it also is an indispensable component that feeds the world and has the potential to find the cures for life threatening diseases. So, next time somebody tells you that agriculture is a dead-end career, think again.

About the Author: Eric Brenner is a graduate student at Texas A&M University and recently returned from a study-abroad trip to Costa Rica, his home-country.

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Coffeelicious

Posted by Eric Brenner on July 12th, 2010

It has been a week and half since I last posted the article “Stepping out of your comfort zone.” Our blog is slowly but surely gaining some followers which is pretty exciting. I have been pretty busy visiting many wonderful parts of Costa Rica and meeting a lot of wonderful people.

Last week, I went to a coffee region called Tarrazu. The coffee produced in this area is rated among the best in the World. I had the opportunity to visit two “Microbenficios” or small coffee mills in Tarrazu along with other people from the ministry and some really nice extension service agents and professors from the University of Nebraska. These really friendly guys from UNL were visiting the country to research the extension services that are implemented in Costa Rica by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Friends from the University of Nebraska, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

So far, this has been one of my favorite experiences from the whole trip because I had the opportunity to interact with the farmers and small producers. It was a very humbling experience to listen to the nice fellows from Nebraska interact and exchange information with these small farmers. In my opinion, this kind of interaction is the true essence in agriculture development because it creates an opportunity to work closely together with farmers and to truly listen to what they have to say.

University of Nebraska Entomologist with Farmer and Ministry Agent

The trips to these areas gave me an opportunity to learn how coffee is produced. More importantly, I discovered that there is a wide array of employment opportunities between all the links of the agriculture chain that begin with the producers and end with the consumers.

I am definitely not an expert, but after visiting a couple of coffee plantations I learned enough to determine what makes a good coffee. There is something about the aroma that I just love. Unlike my wife, who needs coffee to function properly throughout the day, I seldom have a cup of joe. I don’t really enjoy bitter flavors, so coffee is something I rarely drink. But like many things, coffee is an acquired flavor. And Like wine, which I truly enjoy, the art of coffee tasting could be as complex and delightful as wine tasting.

Even though I’m not an avid coffee drinker, the process that takes the bright red coffee cherry all the way to the freshly brewed cup is something all coffee drinkers should understand. Not only because it is very interesting, but it will also help you discern between a good and a bad cup of java.

Where did it all begin?

According to the story, around the year 800 A.D an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats acting pretty strange after they were grazing on the red berries from a coffee shrub. Perplexed by this discovery, he took the berries to a local monastery, where monks brewed a concoction that kept them alert throughout the night.

Coffee later made its way across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula Around A.D 1000. Based on the legend, Muslims were the first to roast and brew the coffee beans into the drink that is known today. Coffee later migrated to North Africa, Mediterranean, and India. It eventually reached Venice and the expanded to Europe around 1615. During the 18th century, a young French naval officer took some clippings from the coffee trees in the Botanical Gardens in Paris and took them to Martinique, a French Colony in the Caribbean. From Martinique, coffee later expanded to the American continent -South and Central America mostly – where it became one of the most important crops for the Latin American Colonies.

From the bean to the cup.

It takes around four years – from planting to harvesting – for a coffee plant to produce good quality berries. Coffee plants or shrubs depend on many factors to produce high quality beans that will result in great tasting coffee. These factors include the type of soil, elevation, plant variety, water, etc.

There are two main species of coffee that are cultivated for commercial consumption: Arabica and Robusta. In Costa Rica, 100% of the coffee cultivated is Arabica. According to the ICAFE, the Coffee Institute from Costa Rica, the Arabica specie produces a better bean with higher quality and aroma. The shrubs are cultivated in fertile soils of volcanic origins with low acidity; ideal conditions for the coffee plant. More than 80% of the coffee in Costa Rica is located in areas between 2700 ft to 5300 ft above sea level with temperatures ranging from 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and 78 and 118 inches of annual precipitation.

Harvesting time in Costa Rica depends on the region, but usually it takes place from October through March. Costa Rican coffee is rated among the best coffees in the World. This is a result of carefully choosing the best bean by only selecting ripened cherries, which is done by hand throughout thousands and thousands of hectares of cafetales (coffee plantations).

Green Coffee Cherries

Inside a Coffee Plantation

After harvesting, the cherries are then moved through a machine that depulps the coffee beans from the cherries. The beans then are washed and move to outside beds where they are then sun dried. It takes around five days to fully dry the coffee beans. The beans are usually turned every thirty minutes to allow for a uniform dry to avoid fermentation. After the beans are dried, they are bagged and sent to an oven for roasting and final processing.

Coffee Bean After Depulping

Depulper Machine

If you want to know more about how coffee is produced, there are many websites on the Internet where you can find tons of information. This link is a great way to get started. As my internship approaches to the end, I will try to keep you updated every week with my progress. I have a lot of info I want to share and pictures to show you. Also, keep the comments coming, they really help us out. If you have suggestions, please let us know.

Until then, have a great a week.

About the Author: Eric Brenner is a graduate student at Texas A&M University and currently on a study-abroad trip to Costa Rica, his home-country.

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Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

Posted by Eric Brenner on June 25th, 2010

An opportunity to expand beyond your comfort zone

Study abroad programs and internship opportunities should be in every college student’s “to do” list. Many times students are so engulfed into the college routine that they forget that college not only teaches academics, but also has the potential to provide lifetime lessons that can be far more rewarding than any class.

Every person that has shared with me their study abroad or internship experience has said they would do it again in a heartbeat if they had the chance.  Just imagine an opportunity to learn about another culture and language while you earn college credits.  Even better, you get to learn about a country from a local rather than a tourist perspective. Believe me, but there is a big difference.

Besides, as the world becomes more globalized, more and more employers are looking for potential employees with some kind of international experience and different language skills. There is a broad array of organizations all over the world that offer great internship opportunities for undergrads and graduate students.

It is true that finding the right study abroad or internship program can be a painstaking process, and many students feel intimidated by the possibility of getting out of their comfort zone. Fear of the unknown usually deters students to take a blind step into something that has the potential to be one of the best experiences of their lives.  I have heard my fair share of excuses – which don’t get me wrong some are very well founded – however, they could be easily resolved if some effort is put into it.

Costs and expenses are among the most common issues, but there are several mechanisms to help fund cost and expenses.  For instance, students in study abroad programs can get funding through scholarships, grants, federal and state financial aid, and other similar programs. Most universities have a study abroad department that has information available for students. Even for internships, many organizations pay the interns and even cover some, if not all expenses, and for organizations that do not offer paid internships, some of them offer room and board. There are several options that if well planned and researched could offer a great opportunity for students.

Right now, I am in Costa Rica working on my internship with the ministry of agriculture with the department of regional operations and extension services. Even though I am from here, this internship has allowed me to discover and see my country in a different way. Since I am part of the extension services, I have had the opportunity to visit remote areas of the country that I have never been before, or I would have never visited in a normal situation because they are not “touristy” or are too far away. However, it has been an amazing experience to discover areas that have not been spoiled by progress. People in these areas have a different perception of the world, and the feeling of community is so strong that they can make any stranger feel right at home.

In the agriculture development arena, there are many necessary components for the expansion of the agriculture industry, especially in developing nations. It includes the farmers, local producers, extension service agents, distributors, private sector, government officials, NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations), international entities, banks and financial institutions; talk about different career opportunities in agriculture. Even though these are small communities, visiting these places has been a great opportunity to understand agriculture development process from a macro dimension. All the different sectors work through a dynamic chain of components that serve as a platform that drives the agriculture industry. Without the collective efforts of all these entities, agriculture development would not be possible.

Internships and study abroad programs are great ways to get connected into your major. It gives you the opportunity to discover and have a better understanding of your career. Most importantly, it allows for you to better plan your future since it gives you a broader spectrum of possibilities.

During the next couple of weeks, I will keep you posted on how my internship progresses. I will be posting some pictures of the places that I will visit around the country during my stay.

Until then, have a great week.

About the Author: Eric Brenner is a graduate student at Texas A&M University and currently on a study-abroad trip to Costa Rica, his home-country.

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