Zionsville Resident Leads Food Security Efforts at Home and Abroad
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Last summer, Zionsville resident M. Paige Oliver, her husband and two sons repatriated from Singapore and have been reacclimating to their Zionsville community. Oliver is the integrated field science innovation and operations global leader at Corteva Agriscience. She has been with the company for 20 years in multiple roles across R&D, including discovery chemistry, formulation chemistry and integrated field science.
I spoke with Oliver about her work in China and Asia-Pacific (APAC) and asked what knowledge and insights has she brought back to implement in her work in the U.S. as well as her Hoosier community as it relates to food security and sustainability.
Helping to Lead Efforts to Support Food Security and Sustainable Practices
In her role, Oliver partners with teams within Corteva and external collaborators across the globe to advance agricultural research with a focus on sustainable practices, partnering with farmers and understanding their needs. Oliver shared that there is a particular interest in supporting the small landholder and women farmers.
Oliver is a passionate advocate for the development and advancement of business scientists and actively leads efforts to support food security in local communities. With Corteva’s support, Oliver shared that she has initiated food security efforts in China and APAC while in her regional role. She is currently serving as the Indy Global Business Center food security lead.
A recipient of the 2005 Dow AgroSciences Young Scientist of the Year Award, Oliver’s background also includes a master’s degree in organic chemistry at Purdue University, a Six Sigma Green Belt and being honored as the 2015 Women’s Innovation Network Champion.
“My husband is a professional chef, so from a food perspective—it’s personal to us,” Oliver shared. “I work on one side with the farmers, and he’s working on the other side with the consumers. So, our discussions around the dinner table are usually pretty interesting. With my background in chemistry, I’ve seen how we are inventing crop protection products to help enable their crops and improve productivity. And through formulations, understanding how we’re partnering with farmers from an application perspective so that it’s easy and safe for them to do. Then, from the field science or field biology, really seeing how those products are being used in a way that is beneficial for the environment but also for the people using that technology and, eventually, for the people eating the food.”
Oliver added, “From a global perspective, I would say not everywhere are they caring so much about the land, and in some cases, they don’t own the land. So, what drives their decisions is their own profitability. Typically, you have passionate farmers who are passing it on to their kids and their grandchildren, so it’s extremely personal to them. From a company perspective, we try to partner with them, and no matter what context they are using, we also care deeply about the environment and about people. So, whatever we’re going to produce, whether it’s the seed, crop protection or digital solutions, how we bring that all together, we’re going to be fanatically focused on the farmer to ensure that their operation is as effective and profitable as we can help enable it to be. We’re also ensuring that any of those products are going to help them from a sustainability aspect.”
The Impact of Small Landholder Farmers—Globally and Locally
Over the next nine years, Oliver shared that as part of their 2030 goals, they are looking at how they provide training to 25 million farmers.
“There is a specific emphasis on our small landholder farmers because there’s about 500 million small landholder farmers in Asia, Africa and South America,” Oliver stated. “And they are producing about 80% of the food in those areas. The impact that has here [in the U.S.] is huge when you think about the exports. When we think about rice, the U.S. does produce rice, but the majority of our rice is coming from Asia. The average size of a farm in China is about the size of a conference room, and how they farm is so different then we commercialize farming in other areas and for other crops.”
Innovative Ideas With Environmental Benefits
Corteva puts a strong emphasis on developing and implementing farming practices that benefit not only the farmers and the end-users but the environment as well.
“When looking at cropping systems, for example, in the U.S. when you’ve harvest corn or soybeans, you can plant peas—yellow peas, for instance—as a winter cover crop,” Oliver said. “It is a legume, and it does nitrogen fixation in the soil, which helps anchor that soil, so you won’t have as much erosion. Another benefit is that it can be harvested. It’s one of the fastest-growing plant proteins right now, and it creates another revenue stream for the farmers.”
Oliver further explained that nitrogen fixation allows more nitrogen in the soil, which means you don’t need as much fertilizer. The effects of climate change are evident in the areas the Oliver and her team had been working in, especially in parts of India.
“Globally, we have another situation where climate change is happening,” Oliver said. “In India, the water table is starting to go down in certain regions. A flooded rice paddy is very common for weed control. So, without enough water, the farmers have to switch to dry direct seeded rice, and they are hand planting. They’ve never planted this way before, and they are using a different hybrid [of rice] that doesn’t need as much water. We’re supporting them and have done testing to see what the hybrids are for this situation. We can provide mechanization that allows them to plant without having to do it by hand, and we looked at different herbicides that are needed because [absent water] they have different weeds. We keep the farmer in the center of all that we do, and we feel that it’s good businesses to do good.”
Are Sustainable and Responsible Food Practices Trending?
I asked Oliver if she is seeing these practices trending throughout the U.S. now that she’s returned to her country of origin.
“Maybe because I’m just re-entering the U.S., I feel it was really encouraging to see ‘Imperfect Foods,’” Oliver stated. “I like to people watch in the grocery store and see them ‘hunt’ through the apples to find the most appealing ones. I’ll tell you that other countries aren’t going to focus on that so much. It’s almost presence absence—they just go into the grocery and grab what they need. They’re not hunting through the stack. I think when you have an upper class and a significant middle class, people get choosey. When you’re looking for sustenance, you’re just looking for ‘healthy.’”
Back Home and Purpose-Driven
Having extensively traveled throughout China and APAC, Oliver has brought with her countless experiences and a depth of knowledge that continues to fuel her sense of purpose both professionally and personally.
“We have a ‘Hunger Garden’ on site at Corteva,” Oliver said. “We are producing vegetables and have donated over 20,000 pounds of produce to different food security networks within the Indianapolis area. We partner with Meals on Wheels, Gleaners, and different local area organizations.”
When asked how it felt to be back in Zionsville—back in the home they had rented out while they were abroad—Oliver replied, “We had originally moved to Zionsville a year after I started with Corteva. We are so grateful to be back in the community and thankful for the small-town life.”