Students trek deep into the Amazon and scale the Andes to learn about global food security

Master’s student Lester Schonberger makes the native fermented drink chicha in Ecuador.

Emily Burke’s ah-ha moment came underneath a giant kapok tree that towered over the blanket of green that envelopes the Ecuadorian rainforest.

It was there, as a local Quechuan guide spoke about deforestation has changed the way his family hunts and eats and survives in the jungle, that Burke fully appreciated why she flew south of the equator this summer to study food security.

“It made me feel like I’m learning about things that are important to the future of our world,” said Burke, a rising junior from Vienna, Virginia who is double majoring in agricultural and applied economics and environmental policy and planning. “Feeding the world is one of the biggest challenges of the next 20 years. I wanted to get a first-hand experience to find out how we are going to do that.”

But for the group of students from the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who spent two weeks in Ecuador trekking in the Amazon, scaling the Andes, and exploring the Galapagos, the notion of understanding food security and production on a global scale was also about something else. It was about using agriculture as a means to help the world. It was about service.

Some of the students on the trip were taking a class called agriculture, global food security and health. The class is part of the college’s Global Food Security and Health minor, which examines some of the most pressing issues that will be facing our planet as the world population swells by an additional 2 billion people over the next 30 years.

“I want them to know that everything is interconnected in the food chain, from the moment we put the seed in the ground to the moment we eat it,” said Ozzie Abaye, a professor of crop and soil environmental sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist who led the students on the journey. “The students are learning that people around the world have the same needs. We all need food, shelter and clean water. I want them to understand that we are not that different from one another.”

To learn more about the many global programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, visit