Meet the Experts: New Fellow Helps Feed the Future Apply Lessons Learned in Scaling Health Care Innovations to Agriculture

October 22, 2013

Meet Jon Colton, a new Jefferson Science Fellow with USAID. While at USAID this year, Jon will support the Feed the Future initiative’s work to scale up promising technologies that help smallholder farmers improve global food security.

We talked with him to learn more about technology’s relevance to agricultural development, and how innovations in one field can end up helping others in unexpected ways.

Tell us a little about your research and academic interests.

As professor of mechanical engineering and of industrial design, I’m interested in how technology, specifically mechanical technology, can be used to improve people’s lives. I’ve worked on projects in the area of humanitarian design and engineering such as medical facilities, immunization equipment such as plastic hypodermic needles, cold chain equipment and facilities, farming tools, medical devices, bio-mass fueled stoves, and charcoal makers.

One of my current research projects, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is developing a refrigerated warehouse for drugs and vaccines in Tunis that will generate as much energy, via solar, as it consumes. This technology can also be used to keep food fresh until it reaches markets.

I also have a strong interest in polymer and composites processing. In fact, my colleagues at Georgia Tech and I are working with Boeing on the next generation of composite aircraft technology.

Your research involves using mechanical engineering to improve wellbeing, particularly in developing countries. What drew you to this work?

A friend from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drew me into this arena. He had spent six months at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva starting the Safe Injection Global Network to address the dangers of needle and syringe re-use and disposal in developing countries. Upon his return, he challenged me to design and fabricate a plastic hypodermic needle to replace steel needles.

Steel needles are reused in developing countries and cause 25 million cases of hepatitis each year. A plastic needle is easier to destroy, for example by placing in a flame. It can also be recycled into commercial products such as trash cans and car battery cases. We worked on the project for a number of years and now a company in Australia is commercializing plastic needles.

This led me to work on medical waste disposal in developing countries, in support of mass vaccination campaigns. One thing led to another and I was asked to join an advisory committee for WHO as the engineering member; most of the other members are doctors, epidemiologists, tropical disease specialists, and the like. Through this activity, I met folks from WHO, UNICEF, PATH, and other global health organizations.

Ending up working with Feed the Future was a surprise. I thought I’d be working in global health or water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) at USAID, but my experience happens to apply well to the needs of farmers in developing countries.

How does mechanical engineering relate to Feed the Future’s work to help the rural poor, especially smallholder farmers, increase their incomes and nutrition?

Mechanical engineering is the conversion of energy to useful work, including the design, construction and use of machines. At Feed the Future, I’ll be looking into how machines (mechanization) can help smallholder farmers: those with farms that are too small for large machinery such as tractors, but too large for hand-based agriculture. I like to use the analogy that my yard is too small for a riding mower, but too large for a hand-powered reel mower, so I need something in between.

I’m interested in both technology transfer (moving technology from research to adoption in the field) and technology adaption (moving technology from one field to another—for example cold rooms from health care to agriculture—or from one location of application to another, such as from Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa).

I’m investigating how mechanical technologies, such as seed drills, two-wheel tractors, drip irrigation, no-till farming, weeders, threshers, and winnowers, can be applied to the sustainable intensification of farming—producing more food on the same land and with less manual labor.

If farmers can produce more food with less labor, they’ll have more food to eat, they can sell the extra food to generate income, and their children will have more time to attend school and become educated. All of these will help to break the cycle of poverty. 

What are some unexpected technologies that could or are being applied to agriculture to improve food security in developing countries?

One example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-supported project I mentioned earlier, which is developing a net-zero energy refrigerated warehouse for vaccines and drugs. We’re working with the Ministry of Public Health in Tunisia and the World Health Organization to design a model warehouse that is highly energy efficient and that generates as much energy as it consumes, making it environmentally sustainable. This will help reduce the cost of vaccinations.

Our plan is to build, monitor, and evaluate the structure, then publish a guidebook for Ministries of Health in developing countries to assist them in designing their own warehouses.

When I mentioned this work to people at Feed the Future, they immediately saw the connection with their work, suggesting that the technology could be used to reduce post-harvest losses of horticultural products, such as fruits and vegetables, many of which rot before they can get to market. These losses reduce farmers’ incomes and, more importantly, reduce the amount of food and with it, nutrition, available to consumers.

What's one thing you wish more people knew or understood about global food security and nutrition?

Food security, that is freedom from worry about where the next meal will come from, as well as water and healthcare lead to nutrition and hence to healthy families. Once these have been attained, then people will be free to pursue the inalienable rights set out in our Declaration of Independence (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

Stay tuned to the Feed the Future blog for future installments in our “Meet the Experts” series. 

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