Jessica Agnew sifted the rice through her fingers and analyzed everything about this special grain.

The fortified rice looked similar to its traditional counterpart except for the slight yellow hue. Minor visual differences aside, this grain packed a punch. This is fortified rice loaded with iron, zinc, and vitamins needed for a nutritious diet to help develop youth.

This powerful cereal grain is the reason why Agnew, the associate director of CALS Global, and two teams from Virginia Tech were in Cambodia.

Something as small as a fortified rice kernel can have a major nutritional impact – in turn, improving national and regional economies. Researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences conducted an economic impact analysis for rice fortification in Cambodia. A second team worked on a marketing and commercialization strategy to create demand for this super grain. Both projects are done in partnership with the World Food Programme’s Cambodia office.

A 2018 World Health Organization guideline showed that fortifying rice to reduce malnutrition proved an effective way to improve nutrient deficiencies, especially iron. Fortified rice has been shown to reduce the risk of iron deficiency and increase blood levels of hemoglobin in areas where rice is a staple food. The Copenhagen Consensus also ranks rice fortification as the most cost-effective development intervention, with significant returns for a low cost.

This work was in progress months before the two groups, which included four undergraduates and one graduate student, journeyed to Cambodia. The project was made possible through the generosity of Winston and Marilyn Samuels, who have been generous supporters of the college and volunteers over the years. Winston Samuels M.S. ’80, Ph.D. ’83, the CEO of MaxxPerformance, was a graduate student in what is today the School of Animal Sciences.

“Globally, the human race is one,” said Marilyn Samuels ‘82, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and co-founded MaxxPerformance with her husband in 2004. “The university experience must be geared to the common goal of living in harmony as one. We share the same resources, and we have more in common than our differences. International study permits the student to have those experiences, and we are thrilled to be able to contribute to these transformational opportunities.”

Rice mixed with the fortified, yellowish kernels. Photo courtesy of Jessica Agnew.

White rice mixed with the fortified, yellowish kernels.
White rice mixed with the fortified, yellowish kernels. Photo courtesy of Jessica Agnew.

Each of the two teams that traveled to Cambodia was led by a faculty advisor. The economic impact analysis team was led by Anubhab Gupta, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

“This research project directly impacts the nutritional status of children in the region,” said Yoonjung Lee, a third-year Ph.D. student from South Korea who assisted with the economic impact analysis. “Through interviews and conversations with leaders in the region, we found the important factors of the programs and what policies will be needed to improve food security and enhance food fortification.”

As part of the economic impact analysis, Lee, along with Alex Macri, a sophomore in the department, studied the cost of the fortified rice being homegrown versus imported from other countries.

One of the many options discussed for producers in the region is to import fortified kernels to add to homegrown rice. However, if demand is there, the fortified rice could be produced entirely in the country.

That’s where the marketing and commercialization component of the project comes in.

To help with the implementation method, the Agnew-led team worked on understanding the ways that demand could be created for fortified rice to make it worthwhile for rice millers in the country.

“With the demand that would be from the school feeding program, rice millers don’t feel that is sufficient to make the investment to start producing fortified rice,” Agnew said. “We’re thinking about garment factories and associated lunch programs, hospitals, child care centers, and other feeding or meal programs available that could be used to create demand in the market.”

Both teams met with rice millers as well as retailers, local markets, and local government officials.

“It was fascinating to get to talk to so many different types of people with Virginia Tech students,” Agnew said. “It was a great experience helping them have opportunities to present and interact with a variety of business people and ask them questions along the way while having a positive impact on the world.”

For Natasha Iannuzzi ’22, from Cumberland, Rhode Island, who was a senior at the time of the trip, the journey impacted her career trajectory.

“This experience has opened many doors for me that I wouldn't have had access to beforehand. I was able to meet with extremely educated people and build strong connections with people in a field of my interest. I feel stronger in my abilities and more confident when interviewing knowing I have this experience under my belt,” said Iannuzzi, who was the recipient of the Ashe Lockhart Scholarship, Buzz's Bunch Scholarship, and C. Gordon Thornhill Scholarship while a student.

Participating in international research has already become a cornerstone of Macri’s time in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“I’ve been to Ecuador to conduct research,” Iannuzzi said. “I’ve been to Cambodia. I’ve gone out into the field and worked hands-on with my professors. I’ve had so many opportunities to conduct research outside of the classroom,” he said. “I feel prepared from the experiences I’ve had, and it’s a credit to the college and to the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.”

These projects are a starting point for CALS Global’s prioritization of international experiential learning opportunities for students. By working with a network of global partners, CALS Global creates opportunities for students that will prepare them for the workforce while embodying Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) values to create global impact on pressing issues related to sustainable development.

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