Benson Institute aims to help residents of poorer countries



    Studying the effects of Coca-Cola vs. milk on the growth rate of chicks and teaching Bolivian farmers how to grow vegetables at high altitudes are just two of the research projects the Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute has sponsored.

    The Benson Institute has spent more than 24 years improving the lifestyles of people in Ecuador, Bolivia and Guatemala by recruiting students from BYU and various Latin American universities to do research and teach the native people of these lands, said Dr. N. Paul Johnston, director of the Institute.

    The Benson Institute has focused its research in Latin America and is now branching out to Africa in countries such as Ghana and Morocco.

    “We focus our work there because the need is so great,” Johnston said. “The United States has a myriad of support mechanisms such as food stamps that the developing world does not have. Either they produce the food or they starve to death.”

    The United Nations Human Development Report for 1999 included a ranking of 174 countries from poorest to richest. Ecuador was ranked 25th, Bolivia was ranked 36th and Guatemala was ranked 50th.

    The Institute, run primarily by donations, is working on ways to alleviate the poverty in these countries.

    “In recent years we have had enough financial backing to be in a position to make our mark and be an important component of BYU and its mission,” Johnston said, referring to BYU’s mission of students entering to learn and going forth to serve all over the world.

    BYU students make up a small number of those recruited to do research in the developing countries. The Institute has established relations with a number of universities in Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, Morocco and Ghana. It sponsors native students for internships and research projects in their respective countries.

    “Our major vehicle for moving these projects forth are the native students,” Johnston said. “They do the research and then teach others in their countries.”

    Dr. Johnston said that students in Latin America are required to do a thesis paper to get an undergraduate degree. More than 60 have received scholarships from the Benson Institute to do research for this thesis.

    “I am from a big city, but there are many villagers in my country suffering from malnutrition. I received a scholarship from the Benson Institute to find a way to improve their nutrition,” said Noel Velasco Tamayo, a student from Bolivia.

    Tamayo’s project involved studying the effects of Coca-cola vs. milk on growth. He found that chicks that drank Coca-Cola had a stunted growth rate compared to chicks that were given milk.

    “By teaching people in the high villages in Bolivia this concept, I can help them grow up in better, healthier lives,” Tamayo said.

    Many times villagers will sell the milk they produce to people in the city and then buy Coca-Cola. The people in the city buy the milk to drink because they are more educated and know the value of drinking milk, Tamayo said.

    Substituting Coca-Cola for milk is one reason contributing to underweight children in these countries. The United Nations reported that 16 percent of the children in Bolivia are underweight, while 17 percent were underweight in Ecuador and 27 percent in Guatemala. The report also said that one fifth of all children in the world receive an insufficient intake of calories or protein.

    Along with teaching residents the value of eating right, students have also helped farmers increase the variety of their sustenance by showing them a different way to grow and cook vegetables.

    “One of our most successful projects was teaching native farmers about panqar huyus, which are small garden beds dug into the ground. They have a plastic top that is raised during the day and closed at night. They function like green houses,” Johnston said.

    The use of panqar huyus has given families a way to implement their main diet of potatoes with other vegetables that normally will not grow at such high altitudes as 14,000 feet.

    “By teaching the indigenous people of these countries these farming techniques, we are providing a way for them to have a better life,” Johnston said.

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