Professor Alejandra Sierra

By: Kyle Poorman

Consortium for Innovation in Post-Harvest Loss and Food Waste ReductionIowa State University

I reached Zamorano University Professor Alejandra Sierra via Google Hangouts in the midst of serious COVID-19 containment actions occurring for her in Honduras and also for myself in the United States. These actions limit Professor Sierra to only one trip to the grocery store per week, with the day being chosen by the digits of her national identification number. These containment measures have also meant that all students at Zamorano University that could return home have left, leaving a campus that is typically devoted to a unique curriculum of learning-by-doing agricultural education much quieter. As with most other higher education institutions facing the COVID-19 virus, this situation is unprecedented.

Then again Zamorano itself is positively unprecedented in its own right. This Pan-American institution was established in 1941 and offers a unique blend of classroom, experiential, and learning-by-doing education in agriculture. Until a couple of years ago, it only offered undergraduate education, but has just begun to offer a Master of Science degree in Sustainable Tropical Agriculture. In fact, most of the research that will be conducted through Consortium projects at Zamorano will rely upon undergraduates carrying out the research.

Professor Sierra is a model for the type of student and researcher that the university produces. She is an alumna of Zamorano and received her graduate education at the University of Florida. She was also a Fulbright Scholar, worked in the Honduran Ministry of Agriculture establishing an organic ag portfolio, and has been on the faculty at Zamorano for 12 years. She specializes in plant production and organic agriculture.

I met Professor Sierra for the first time in Ethiopia during the Consortium’s initial organizational meeting being held on the margins of the 2nd All Africa Post-Harvest Congress in September 2019. At the meeting, Professor Sierra described Zamorano’s Consortium research plan. This plan includes an analysis of producing insect protein via the use of food waste, multiple analyses of loss and waste in export focused vegetable value chains in Honduras, and an evaluation of grain and dried bean quality and safety at local markets. At the meeting, she also told me that every year she takes a group of students to Florida to provide them experience in various commercial agricultural production systems. This year was no different, and Professor Sierra accompanied a group of students in February. Even though the group wore medical masks on their flight home and were admittedly lucky not to get stranded in the sunshine state, the students were still able to experience Florida’s food production systems that are now categorized as essential businesses.

After discussing the general COVID-19 situation on the video call, I inquired about the status of Consortium research being undertaken, fully expecting that all projects would be on hold for the foreseeable future. To my surprise, even in the midst of crisis, the insect protein project was continuing. With some students, staff, and faculty on campus, the dining halls are still functioning and the generation of food waste continues. Professor Sierra told me that the next step in the insect protein project was to purchase some equipment, but they had to wait until their numbered day came up again to go out and get it. I was assured that all research activities being undertaken were following strict protocols set up by the school and could only be undertaken on campus. Additionally, as of right now, no students would be involved in the insect protein research or any other activity due to the COVID-19 situation.

It was excellent to connect with Professor Sierra and relay to you that her team, so far, is healthy and doing well. It was also excellent to find out that some Consortium research could safely move forward.