Dr. Ryan Cox, Meats Specialist
University of Minnesota Beef Team
The concept of sustainability is at the forefront of discussion in today's agricultural forum.
Loosely defined and grossly overexploited, the phrase implies an altruistic image of the agricultural model with no impact on the society that it serves and the planet that it feeds from. More often than not, the term “sustainability” conjures images of green pastures, electric cars and clean water.
When we look to address sustainability as institutions, we often gather great thinkers from the fields of ecology, natural resources, production agriculture and biosystems. However, what we commonly forget is that the solutions discussed to maintain the planet and agricultural production model is a partial sketch of the picture.
Sustainability is our ability to sustain. This means our capacity to sustain modern production that has kept our people supplied with a steady, safe and reliable source of food. It goes without question that we cannot maintain the model without the replenishment of the earth.
Additionally, we cannot maintain the model without the demand of the consumer. However, what is to be said of the hands doing the work? When we address sustainability, do we ever mention sustaining our agricultural leaders and personnel?
It has been estimated that almost 90 percent of our society was in some way involved in agriculture when we formed this country. Today, we would be lucky to associate 10 percent of our population with the maintenance of agriculture, with a more prudent estimation closer to 2 percent.
We have moved to greater agricultural efficiency with more and more of our citizens residing in urban or suburban settings. Often times, children grow to become adults having never laid eyes on the animals or crops that they consume on a daily basis. Massive misunderstanding of modern agriculture has even created a counter culture in our society that opposes the very entities that feed it.
So when we discuss agricultural sustainability, how often do we address the need for perpetuation of the trade? Do we devote as much effort as we do to carbon credits and energy conservation as we do to dissemination of sound agricultural science to a motivated generation?
In a recent letter to Science, Dr. Al Levine, Dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, addressed the notion that agriculture is often thought of as a dirty word in scientific circles.
Dr. Levine notes that agriculture, previously thought of as a problem solving discipline by many entities, is now bolstered by signs indicating that the spirit of innovation and growth is being recognized by the younger generations. Factors such as increased student enrollment in agricultural disciplines and rising estimated demands for agricultural personnel are evidence of this.
It is encouraging to note that sustainability is in the minds of our youth. While many of our established industry personnel stagger on their heels, punch-drunk from the barrage of blows delivered by unknowing and misinformed entities, it is reassuring to know that a new generation is eager to rally behind an industry that has provided for so many. But with sustainability in mind, how do we maintain and develop this precious resource?
The first and most obvious answer is sound education. From grade school to the university setting, opportunities exist for students to learn and stay informed on the constantly evolving nature of agricultural science.
Maintaining a strong classroom presence is critical; however it is not the only element necessary to develop a rounded student. Participation in practically-based activities such as 4-H, FFA, school organizations and teams and livestock shows are ways for students to apply the knowledge that they have gained in the classroom in tangible ways. It is critical that the student understands their impact on the process in order to truly understand sustainability.
Additionally, it is critical for students to understand how to think critically and to work in a team setting. In his article titled “Preparing Animal Science Graduates To Think Critically, Compare Logically, Decide Independently, Solve Problems Rationally, Communicate Effectively and Lead Decisively,” Dr. Gary Smith of Colorado State University discusses the many benefits to participation in agricultural judging teams.
Within the article, Dr. Smith states “I believe that administrators of Departments of Animal Science should insist that, within the B.S. curricula, there are opportunities for undergraduates to participate in student clubs, academic quadrathlons and intercollegiate judging competitions to serve as an integral part of the process of developing leadership skills.”
It has already been noted that fewer and fewer children today grow up in an agricultural environment. Often times those that do grow up in farming settings ultimately decide to seek careers closer to cities and away from the farm.
Maintaining a sound base of agricultural professionals is only going to continue to be a challenge. It goes without question that maintenance of the planet is critical to the sustainability of agriculture. However, it is critical to keep in mind that our ability to sustain can only go as far as the last man standing.