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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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