Stories | September 19, 2016 | Read Time: 5 minutes
From Starvation To Scientist
Do you know what it is like to be hungry? Not the “I’m hungry, I need a snack” kind of hungry. Real hunger, as in starvation. According to the World Food Programme, one in eight people in the world suffer from hunger or starvation, so maybe you do know. If it’s something you’ve only seen on TV though, let me tell you what it’s like.
At the beginning of starvation, you feel extremely hungry. Then, the hunger pangs go away, and you get weaker and weaker – to the point that you’re barely able to walk. You do not have hopes or dreams. All you care about is finding something to fill your stomach. During this time, you develop night blindness due to malnutrition. You cannot see anything at night. It’s like having your eyes blindfolded.
How do I know this? I survived four years of chronic hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge communist dictatorship in Cambodia. This is why I am passionate about producing enough food for everyone on the planet, and I believe agricultural technologies can make it possible.
I was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had a normal life before I was 7-years-old. My dad, a self-employed businessman, was able to provide us a decent living. April 17, 1975 was like any other day. We went about our business. But suddenly during mid-morning, we heard gunfire. The next thing we knew, the Khmer Rouge had taken over the city and country.
A civil war had been going on between the government and the Khmer Rouge. Initially, we were elated because we thought the war had finally ended and life would be better. We were dead wrong. By that afternoon, the Khmer Rouge forced everyone to immediately leave the city. We took what we could carry, thinking we’d return home in a few days. We didn’t realize that our lives were changing for the worse.
For the next four years, life under Khmer Rouge rule was hell. We were forced to grow rice and dig reservoirs using only primitive methods: hoes and bamboo baskets carried on our heads or back were the extent of the tools we were given. One bowl of rice or rice porridge, twice a day, was all we were given to eat. We scavenged all kinds of things that under normal circumstances would not be considered food, like poisonous tree roots or a tough piece of leather, in order to fill our stomachs and survive. Many died as a result of execution, starvation or chronic hunger-induced diseases. There were 13 people in my family when we were forced to leave our home, but only five of us survived through the end.
I never imagined that someday I would help develop agricultural technologies to enable farmers to produce more with less. I, like millions of Cambodians, did not expect to have a bright future, especially with no formal education during and after the Khmer Rouge reign.
When I was 16, I was fortunate enough to be able to come to the United States and go to school for the first time. With all of the help I received along the way from many kind people, I was able to earn my college degree. After I completed my Ph.D., I joined Monsanto as a research scientist to help develop agricultural biotechnology. Working at Monsanto is a perfect fit for me because I’m able to contribute to agricultural technology development that can help to enable the production of enough food for the growing population and for minimizing hunger in the world.
There are many interconnected factors involved in world hunger. To solve this problem, producing enough food to feed the growing population must be part of the solution, and that food production needs to be consistent to minimize unstable markets. This means that we need to continue to develop agricultural technologies so we can produce more with less input per acre. Monsanto is at the forefront of this agricultural technology development. To produce enough food to feed the growing population in a sustainable way, we need to have different technologies and biotechnology is one of them.
I have been working in agricultural biotechnology for 16 years and see the benefits it provides. Weed control is a challenging task because farmers need to minimize crop injury while eliminating the competition from weeds for water and nutrients. Now, weeds can be effectively and efficiently controlled with herbicide-tolerant crop technology without the worry of crop injury. Herbicide-tolerant traits allow no-till farming, which retains soil moisture and minimizes soil erosion. Insect-resistant traits enable the plants to protect themselves against insects without the need of insecticidal spray, which is good for the environment. These are just some of the examples where agricultural biotechnology can improve crop yields and protect our environment.
I believe in agricultural biotechnology. I want to participate on the work to eliminate hunger so no other child, or adult, has to experience what I did. Imagine with me a world without hunger. To make this vision a reality, agricultural technology must be part of the solution.