The future of food depends on scientists

Read this at the Chicago Council Good for Thought Blog

By Fred Cholick, Borlaug Training Foundation President and Chair

We hear all the time about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education for equipping the next generation with the skills to innovate. We also know that we need young people to take an interest in farming if we are going to have food on our tables in the future. The average age of farmers in the United States and other developed countries is about 60 years old, and in Africa, the average age of farmers is also about 60, despite the fact that 60 per cent of Africa's population is under 24 years of age. But what is often missing in the discussion is the urgent need for new agricultural scientists who can link basic technical discoveries with applied products for farmers.

Agricultural science is the study of processes and technologies that shape the plants, animals, and entire food systems we rely on for survival. Agricultural scientists are plant breeders, agronomists, crop physiologists, pathologists, entomologists, weed scientists, veterinarians, molecular biologists, statisticians, and economists who work to understand crops, agricultural systems, and markets.

Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the wheat breeder who saved millions of lives and won a Nobel Peace Prize for that work, had a bumpy road during his own education, and he became an agricultural scientist thanks only to the persistent mentoring of a few of his professors at the University of Minnesota. He was a vocal advocate for hands-on, practical field training for crop scientists, because he knew that all the book learning in the world would not educate a scientist on how a wheat plant behaves in a farmer’s field. Towards the end of his life, as he saw the mounting challenges that our food systems are facing—including new challenges brought about by widespread cultivation of his life-saving varieties—he was even more passionate about getting young people into agricultural science and ensuring that they would have opportunities to get their hands dirty and interact with farmers.

The challenges for future food and nutrition security are enormous indeed: with rising populations, declining natural resources and water, depleted soils, shifts in diets, and climate change, our ability to nourish the whole world fifty years from now is uncertain. We need big breakthroughs in agricultural science, and we need to ensure that those breakthroughs can reach the farmers who most need them. We need more agricultural scientists, with more funding and flexibility, to be able to make the discoveries that will underpin the step-changes that we need.

There are great colleges and universities in the United States and other countries that offer degree programs in various agricultural disciplines, and we need more young people to know about and get interested in these options. We also must educate the next generation in the field; better options for farmers will not happen by lab discoveries or writing journal articles alone. I recently met with a group of young scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and asked them to raise their hands if they had worked hands-on in a crop field before. Only four out of the more than 20 crop scientists in the room raised their hands.

We cannot and should not forget the legacy of Norman Borlaug, who, as the world’s most famous plant scientist, always emphasized that scientific know-how is not enough; scientists must convert that knowledge into field-level “do how.” Our challenge is two-fold: teach our young people about the value of agricultural science as a career, and ensure that agricultural science training teaches those young people how to take new technologies and ideas to the farmer.

According to the World Economic Forum, by 2050, our global population of 9.8 billion will demand 70% more food than is consumed today. It is essential that we train the next generation of hunger fighters.