Tuesday, December 21, 2010

So You Want A Job?...The Value of Unpaid Work

For the past three and a half years I have spent buckets of money to work for free. This full time job I like to call “college” demands long hours and countless odd tasks, yet I willingly and gladly show up to class every day because I know it matters. Everyone is told go to school, get good grades, and a job will come. But somewhere between the economic downturn and the influx of brilliant kids graduating from college, the “getting the job” part of that process has fallen by the wayside for many graduates. As a second semester senior I have yet to experience a post-graduation job search, but after seeing enough friends go through the process I feel as though I have learned a thing or two. The best piece of advice I was given by a 2010 alumna was: get an internship, and get it now.

Doing well in school and achieving respectable grades are certainly crucial, yet as any LC graduate can tell you it’s not about the letters you receive but rather the skills you gain from your college education (see this blog post by Andrew Coggiola ’09). While international relations theories and rock climbing 101 have taught me a great deal, it is a bit of a stretch to connect the skills I gained from those courses to a job in food policy and programs (my dream career). I have, however, participated in two internships this past year and they have been wonderful ways to incorporate my career interests into my college education.

My first internship was with Oregon State Representative Jules Kopel Bailey, a Lewis & Clark alumnus whom I met at a Student Alumni Association Majors Meeting. When I first asked about a position in March he wasn’t in need of an intern, but with enough persistence I was able to secure a summer internship. During my time in the representative’s office I responded to constituent e-mails on animal cruelty, answered concerned phone calls about state budget cuts, and investigated the status of pending bills on pollution in Oregon coastal waters. In addition, one week in September I had the chance to fill in for the Representative’s senior policy advisor to take care of the Capitol office for a few days. I learned a great a deal about state legislation and the inner workings of local politics.

Since my time in Jules’ office, I have taken on a second internship working with the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Food Policy and Programs. I have done everything from recording minutes at the monthly Urban Food Production and Distribution meetings to revising a grant application for hunger free communities to surveying the Portland community-supported agriculture economy. And believe it or not, I got school credit for it!

These positions have opened many doors for me. I have gained a fuller understanding of the careers I want to pursue, I have networked with countless individuals and organizations, and most importantly I have gained experience in the workforce before my job search has even begun. The unpaid job of an intern is certainly nothing glamorous, but when graduation rolls around and everyone else is looking for ways to enter the business, I can rest assured my foot is already in the door. So go to college, get good grades (and an internship), and then hopefully a job will come!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Independent Study In Peru: Examining The Controversy Concerning Genetically Engineered Corn

Here is a quick little story about my independent research project during my semester aboard. Last spring, I lived and studied in Peru for three and half months. The majority of my time was spent in Cusco, the city that was once the center of the Incan Empire. I also had the opportunity to travel beyond the Andes, down into the Amazon rainforest, and to the coast as well. In each of these three regions I found myself astounded by the different agricultural practices. I was fascinated by the traditional technologies, the diversity of varieties and species, and the abundance that these systems were capable of yielding. Despite my interest in the more traditional agrarian structures I found myself studying Peru’s most industrialized and commodified models of agricultural production. As a part of the study abroad program, students construct an independent research project that is situated in the area where their topic is taking place. I chose to study corn; more specifically the current legal, political, and ecological concerns surrounding the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) hard yellow corn. In turn I found myself in one of South America’s largest cities, Lima. I stayed in Lima for three weeks and spent most of my time hopping buses and running all around the sprawling city to conduct interviews and speak with individuals involved in the current debate regarding the use and illegal presence of agricultural biotechnology.

Cheers from my friends at the Chicharia.
Chicha is a favorite and ancient beverage of the Andean region, which is made by fermenting yellow corn.

Currently it is illegal to cultivate biotechnology in Peru; however, in 2009 a biologist by the name of Dr. Gutiérrez-Rosati discovered the presence of genetically engineered alleles in hard yellow corn growing in the Northern coastal region. This means that Peruvian varieties of conventional hard yellow corn cross-pollinated and exchanged genetic information with a GE variety of hard yellow corn. Yellow corn is grown primarily to feed pigs and chickens, while it is also used to make oils and flours. One thing I noticed quickly upon arriving to Peru is that Peruvians love to eat chicken. This food protein preference creates a large demand for yellow corn to fatten the chickens. The current levels of production cannot meet the high need and therefore Peru imports corn from two countries: Argentina and the United States. These two countries are the world’s leaders in corn production as well as the leaders in the use of agricultural biotechnology. The presence of transgenes in Peru’s hard yellow corn has been attributed to the importation of GE varieties. The most likely scenario is that farmers are sowing the imported corn instead of using it as feed. When I arrived in Lima I was curious to understand what greater implications would ensue as a result of these GE corn varieties in the coastal region.

My goal was to listen to the differing opinions and perspectives regarding the presence of GE corn in the northern coastal region, and to contextualize this in the greater debate regarding the future use of agricultural biotechnology in Peru’s food system. I spoke with many individuals who are involved in the subject matter in varying ways; biologists, environmental lawyers, the owner of a Peruvian biotechnology firm, government employees of agricultural organizations (equivalent to the USDA), and with activists and agricultural commodity traders. Each conversation offered a new lens from which to view genetically engineered yellow corn and biotechnology in general. I was able to see how this crop has a long and complicated series of relationships and particularly its economic significance. I left Lima with a much greater understanding of the GE corn feud however this was only a minute component of the biotechnology debate. Furthermore, the discussion around GE corn in Peru has changed dramatically since I left Peru.

This image is from Dr. Gutiérrez's report on the presence of transgenes.
This is a visual representation of the specific transgenes that she found in Peruvian hard yellow corn.

Upon returning to Lewis and Clark College, I discovered that Dr. Gutiérrez’s claim that transgenes are present in Peru’s corn has been negated. The Peruvian governmental organization INIA, the institution in charge of agricultural investigation and experimentation, declared Peru to be free of transgenic crops. They claimed to have found no evidence of genetically engineered DNA in the corn samples, which they allegedly took from the same region where Dr. Gutiérrez collected her samples. INIA requested for Dr. Gutiérrez that she provide them with her samples with the transgenes and the locations in which she found them. Interestingly, Dr. Gutiérrez refused to provide INIA with the samples and the locations.

This new development leaves us without an ending and provokes a whole new series of questions. My biggest question is simply why Dr. Gutiérrez is withholding the information and evidence needed to resolve the situation. My guess would be that she is attempting to protect the farmers whose fields produced the transgenic corn, in order to prevent legal issues that may include patent violations as well as infringement of national law. Though it is rather curious that she has refused to provide the desired information to INIA, from the conversations I have had with her I would like to believe she is a genuine and honest person, invested in the well being and health of her national food system as well as its biodiversity. If I am correct and these are her objectives then she must come forward and provide the necessary information to INIA. If Gutiérrez fails to provide the samples and the locations where she found them, Peru and it's corn diversity may be a risk.

A Few of Peru's native Corn Varieties