California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross made her pitch to UC Davis students on Tuesday about the need for fresh ideas in farming and ranching — and how vital communication skills are for the industry.
“To grow enough food to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, we need every one of you to bring your creativity, your smarts, your problem-solving skills that you’re learning on this campus to agriculture,” she said. “This whole food system needs you and needs your dedication.”
Ross spoke at the Memorial Union before members of the Aggie Ambassadors, students who promote majors within the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences to potential students.
Needed, Ross said, are experts in water use, plant science, water quality, air quality, labor. Needed are entomologists and veterinarians. Needed are men and women interested in careers in public policy or in promoting U.S. agriculture abroad.
And needed are researchers who can build the sensors and robotics and other tools needed to meet the challenge of producing more on less arable land, with less water, while meeting stricter environmental rules.
In the 1950s, a farmer might be responsible for feeding fewer than 20 people. Now, a farmer feeds more than 155. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who operate a farm or ranch has shrunk to 2 percent, Ross said.
“They’re feeding everyone else with the lowest cost per capita that’s ever been in this country, which is less than 12 percent of disposable income,” she said. “It’s really important that we’re good communicators so that people understand how agriculture is relevant to their daily life.
“We could spend all day talking about the disconnect between eaters and farmers, but what’s more important is that each one of us is involved in helping people connect to how their food got there, how it was produced and who produced it.”
One example of a gap in understanding: genetically modified crops, or GMOs. Californians recently voted down a ballot measure that would have labeled food products containing them.
Ross said it’s a discussion that needs to go beyond “30-second sound bites.”
“Right now, many people perceive GMO as something that’s only helping some large corporations make a big profit,” she said. “When people can see that there’s something in it for them and they can understand the environmental benefits that can happen, you can have a better, informed discussion.
“At the end of the day, everyone is an environmentalist. Everyone wants food safety. But really what people are yearning for is transparency in the food system because they feel disconnected from it. I think we’ve gotten ourself into this quandary with science getting so far ahead of where the population is. … We don’t have a population that can easily understand it.”
Ross said she supported the contention of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whom she formerly served as chief of staff, that “a continuum of business and farming practices” is good for farmers and consumers.
“It’s critically important that we don’t try to drive this one way or the other but allow for that diversity which will give us resiliency in our food system,” she said.
More understanding is also needed on the part of people “embedded in government’s lower levels … who are locked into a 1960s, ’70s mind-set that farmers are just out to destroy the Earth.”
In fact, environmentalists and farmers began coming together more often in the late 1980s, when environmentalists saw the gains that could be made by working with private landowners, she said.
In Sacramento, she said, Gov. Jerry Brown has encouraged members of his cabinet to “smash the silos” and think about how a change in policy might affect, say, farmers, endangered species, water quality, air quality and labor, rather than just one of those areas.
Ross said California should remain of central importance in solving the world’s pressing food needs, in part because of its geographic location, with ports serving Asia, its cutting-edge technology and farming practices, and its 400 crops.
“We grow what everyone understand they need more of,” she said. “When you think about the USDA dinner plate and the revised nutritional guidelines, it has California written all over it in great big letters: more fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, lean dairy proteins, whole grains.”
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden