Geitner Simmons, June 2, 2022
Bingham’s global work promotes food security, health protections
Can a girl living in a rural village grow up to use science to promote global progress in health, economics and agriculture? Georgina Bingham’s life story shows that the answer is yes.
Bingham, a research associate professor with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Entomology, grew up in a rural English village of only 90 people. But she developed a global sensibility at a young age, encouraged by her desire to travel and by the example of her father, a horticulturalist who traveled extensively to share ideas with other farmers.
As an undergraduate, she developed an agricultural-environmental research project that took her to rural Kenya. The project, in which she worked with Masaai pastoralists, launched an academic career that over the past 15 years has involved collaborative scientific projects in Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Bingham has used her expertise in insect science, insecticide resistance and food security to work on international projects with government agencies, nonprofits, universities and private industry. One project has boosted food storage capability in Africa — and hence families’ economic livelihoods and stability — through the use of airtight, insect-resistant storage bags known as ZeroFly Hermetic bags. Each modified-atmosphere ZeroFly bag can be used for up to two years and holds about 220 pounds.
Bingham led the development of the bags, which won the Good Design Gold Award in 2015, while working for the Swiss company Vestergaard. Vestergaard was a partner organization with the Feed the Future initiative, a multi-campus research partnership focusing on global food security and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is one of the initiative’s research partners. USAID recently approved funding for the project’s ninth year of operation, enlisting Bingham as its scaling expert.
While working at Vestergaard, Bingham also helped developed small, easily managed, insecticide-treated targets, called Tiny Targets, which have strengthened the fight against tsetse flies that cause sleeping sickness. That debilitating illness annually strikes people and animals over large areas of Africa.
A peer-reviewed study published in 2020 concluded that, in a set of African countries, Tiny Targets “contributed to a sharp decrease in disease incidence and played a critical role in combatting an upsurge in (sleeping sickness) cases” from 2016-2017.
“Dr. Bingham joined UNL in 2020 after a strong career working internationally for a global humanitarian organization, Vestergaard,” said John Ruberson, head of the Department of Entomology at Nebraska. “She was entrusted with multimillion-dollar budgets and produced great results with her leadership and work at Vestergaard, while caring deeply for struggling populations. She has brought those same skills to UNL.”
Educational outreach to Nebraska high school students is also a focus for Bingham. She is among the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources faculty who help Lincoln Public Schools students learn about food, energy, water and societal systems through the LPS-CASNR Early STEM Program, which incorporates those concepts into the curriculum at Lincoln Northeast High School.
Nebraska-focused insect studies, including research on stable flies affecting livestock, is another of Bingham’s scientific interests. Working as an entomologist in Nebraska “gives me a wonderful opportunity,” she said, “because Nebraska is definitely a frontier for new and emerging arthropod species and arthropod-borne disease, due to changes in climate.”
Bingham’s “extensive global and human experiences, exceptional disciplinary and intellectual depth, communication skills and deep emotional intelligence have added greatly to a variety of research and teaching efforts,” Ruberson said. “She is able to capture the bigger global picture without losing sight of her own community and the needs of individuals.”
By drawing on her extensive experiences and communication skills, Ruberson said, Bingham “enriches everyone with whom she interacts and catalyzes ideas with informed and critical analysis.”
In light of Bingham’s scientific work around the globe, CASNR’s Global Engagement program included her as an expert for its inaugural Sustainable Development Scholars series. Bingham’s webinar presentation, on strategies to address global hunger and promote sustainable agriculture in developing countries, is available online.
A key factor spurring global hunger, Bingham said, is the extensive loss of crops and food due to insects, pathogens and weeds — a loss that annually eliminates a third of world food production. Solving these problems would provide enough food for 2 billion people.
The ZeroFly bags help by enabling smallholder famers to avoid losing grain that otherwise would be stored in the open and vulnerable to insects and fungal infestation. A specialized formulation of insecticide is applied to the ZeroFly bag and is released slowly onto the bag’s surface. A hermetic inner liner lies between the insecticide and the stored food.
Hermetic storage bags in general have meant major gains for small-scale producers. In Ghana, producers “have noted (that) not only did they have better-quality grain, but their eggs and broiler chickens did considerably better on grain that’s kept safe,” Bingham said.
The Feed the Future project recently cited the example of a Ghanian household that began using hermetic storage bags. Over five years, the household was able to increase its chicken numbers from 1,000 birds to 50,000.
“It’s always interesting to me to see that smallholder farmers — 500 million of them — are supporting 2 billion people,” Bingham said. “That’s kind of incredible when you see the conditions they have, the lack of inputs they have. There is so much possibility in developing countries to improve and increase production.”
An example from Kenya illustrates a promising strategy to help small-scale producers, she said. Vestergaard and Saving Grains, a World Food Program spinout company, help smallholders use cellphones to connect with local entrepreneurs who buy grain from them and store it in hermetic bags.
Previously, Bingham said, the farmers had no effective storage capability and had to sell their harvest early at low prices. Then, when their own food stocks were depleted, they essentially had to buy back their grain at double the price. Now, the smallholders use the ZeroFly bags to hold onto their grain for an extended period and make sales when the market is favorable.
Bingham’s years of international scientific work on those and other projects stem from how her studies at Wageningen University in the Netherlands early this century introduced her to the multiple challenges smallholder farmers face in developing countries. A household’s ownership of a single animal, she found, “was the insurance for the family. I couldn’t immediately wrap my head around that as a European with no experience in developing countries other than what I saw on the TV. So this opened my eyes, and I decided that I wanted to go and work in Africa.”
Bingham was only 21 when she conducted her fieldwork among Masaai herders in Kenya. She said the experience changed her life completely.
Ever since, she has directed her work to “do something that has an impact on those less fortunate than myself. I always felt very fortunate growing up on a farm and being able to go to study and being supported. So I really just want to give back.
“I just want to use what I know,” she said, “to try to make the world a better place.”