Here’s some food for thought: In the next four decades experts are predicting that the world’s population is likely to grow by 50 percent from 6 billion to 9 billion. That huge growth, along with a rising standard of living across the globe, leads inevitably to a forecast that we’ll have to double food production. But that increase is going to have to take place on the same or less land using the same or less water and energy.
And that’s not all. Food production will need to be safe and environmentally responsible as well. Sounds like an insurmountable challenge? It is not. Remember that American agriculture has seen dramatic growth during the last 100 years. In 1900, 38 percent of United States workers were employed in production agriculture and in 1940 each American farmer produced only enough to feed 19 people. In 2000, less than 2 percent of United States workers were employed in production agriculture and each farmer produced enough to feed 139 people.
Strong Academic Tradition
Texas is, unequivocally, a leader in our nation’s agriculture, contributing more than $100 billion to the state’s economy each year. In Texas, almost 80 percent of the total land area is in some type of agricultural production, and Texas is the nation’s leader in sales of cotton, cattle and calves, sheep and wool, goats and mohair and horses. The agriculture industry also supports one in seven Texas jobs.
But most people simply don’t realize there’s a reason why we Texans spend less than 10 percent of our disposable income on food, which is less than anywhere else in the world. (By comparison, the Chinese spend 34 percent of their disposable income on food.) One key factor for that disparity is the state’s strong academic tradition for training top-flight agricultural and natural resources scientists and professionals. These professionals help producers to be efficient, thus benefiting consumers in the pocketbook.
Agriculture Enrollments Up
Just where does Texas Tech’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, CASNR for short, rank among the nation’s leading agriculture universities? It’s 30th in terms of size with the second largest undergraduate student enrollment in the country for non-land grant agricultural and natural resources programs. It offers 12 bachelors, 15 masters and seven doctoral programs. CASNR generated $12.8 million in sponsored research funding in 2010 with only about 75 faculty, making it the largest non-land grant agricultural and natural resources research program in the United States.
Faculty are involved in cutting-edge research in a variety of areas including sustainable agriculture; biotechnology; genomics; food safety, security and quality; natural resources management and planning; agricultural policy analysis; and technology transfer.
As our state’s urban population grows and our priorities broaden to include aerospace, defense, and information and computer technology, some mistakenly believe demand for agriculture education will decline.
Not so. Nationwide, the USDA estimates that enrollment in agriculture degree programs increased by 22 percent between 2005 and 2008, from 58,300 students to nearly 71,000. In CASNR, enrollment has increased by 20 percent as well between 2005 and 2009.
New Career Opportunities
So what’s the big draw to agriculture? In a word: Jobs. Agriculture schools are now attracting students from rural as well as urban areas, with and without traditional farming background. Non-traditional students from urban areas are now drawn to agriculture studies because they know that modern agriculture has become a high-tech sector, and its level of innovation is second only to aviation and space technology.
Whether it’s increasing productivity for growing food, or conservation of natural resources, or discovering new and better products through genomics and biotechnology, career opportunities for agriculture professionals often exceed the number of qualified graduates currently in the pipeline. We anticipate that, in addition to serving in roles as industry and university researchers, CASNR students will also take on larger leadership roles in government and industry, where professionals with agricultural knowledge will be needed to address science, policy and regulatory questions.
Complex Challenges Ahead
Over the years, Texas Tech and other major agricultural universities have helped to create a society where less than 2 percent of our citizens produce the food required to keep the remaining 98 percent at the dinner table. We’re all touched by agriculture. And this will be no less true in the next century than it has been throughout the past 100 years. During the next century, however, the agriculture industry will seek solutions to a multitude of complex challenges led by food security. This daunting task is further complicated by shrinking water resources, environmental concerns, and global interdependence.
According to some, a second "Green Revolution" is essential to attain food security through sustainable agricultural development based on environmentally sound management of natural resources. Research and technology development are the means to this end.
Daunting task? Yes. Insurmountable? No. The agriculture industry has done it before and is very capable of doing it again, but it will be possible if and only if the public, academic institutions and governments give renewed attention to agricultural development and to strengthening the national agricultural research systems. Now that’s some food for thought at anybody’s table.
Sukant Misra is Associate Dean for Research in Texas Tech University’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.