Five Truths II: public good or private benefit

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I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored my first truth (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  This post examines the second of “my truths.”

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My Truth Two:   the public agricultural research and education (land grant) system created to serve the public good is influenced by the private agenda of multinational  corporations, large agricultural commodity groups, and disciplinary-bound science societies.

The extent of agreement with this statement among all survey participants (see the introduction blog on my truths for background on the survey) was clear, with 90% choosing strong or full agreement.  Its easy to criticize scientists whose work directly benefits corporations willing provide research dollars, yet the situation is not quite that simple.

Agricultural researchers and educators may begin their university careers full of idealism and hope that they might contribute to feeding the world’s hungry and preserving the natural environment.  Something happens along the way however to redirect their work toward more limited (and more publishable) objectives.

Nevertheless, I believe that ‘just below the surface‘ of many academics is a hopeful visionary, still dreaming of making a difference in the world. The evaluation system which requires scientists to conform to the expectations of their discipline-bound professional societies (which determine if they are able to publish their work) limit their ability to address complex real-world problems.

One of the survey participants wrote;

The social and cultural environment in graduate school and in ladder rank positions pushes people to work alone using reductionist methods which limits the ability to research real world problems that exist today”

And another participant wrote:

If researchers from different disciplines don’t figure out how to work together, we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us.”

True – but it will take more than individuals from different disciplines working together to create a more sustainable agricultural system.  As long as the goal of research is primarily the short-term economic success of those groups holding financial power (mostly multinational corporation or large agricultural commodity groups) there will be little progress on the path toward long-term sustainability.   Another participant wrote:

…dollars and cents, has become the dominant, if not the only, criteria by which we measure the value of everything — including publicly funded research and education.”

I agree that economic efficiency is one important goal for research and education, however it is insufficient alone and may actually be harmful when other goals such as environmental quality and social justice are neglected.  University presidents are fond of citing their institution as an “engine of economic growth” for the state and nation.  But this narrow representation of the public mission of the land grant university encourages much of agricultural science to be directed toward new technologies that prioritize short-term financial return – often at the expense of long-term sustainability.  One survey participant suggested an alternative role for the university;

…the US does not have a clear policy on the role of agriculture and the future of rural America.  A major failure of land grants in my opinion is their lack of leadership in helping the nation develop such goals. The only goals articulated are the next technical fix.”

Lacking a grand vision, technical solutions dominate the research of agricultural scientists.   But technical solutions to the complex problems created by industrial agriculture (such as environmental degradation and social upheaval) may do more harm than good.  While the reductionist approach may keep the discipline-bound research machinery of the university going, it does little to solve complex societal problems.

University administrators encourage scientists to address environmental and social problems but at the same time support a faculty evaluation system that rewards the acquisition of outside funding for their research.  Few sustainable agriculture organizations or public interest groups can provide significant financial support, so faculty must turn to those large agricultural commodity groups and multinational corporations that have a stake in maintaining the status quo rather than supporting a transition to a more sustainable food and farming system.  These organizations can influence the direction of public research either directly through gifts and grants (which thereby leverage public monies) or indirectly by serving as advisers on various public planning and review committees.

Corporate partnerships are sought and celebrated, thus driving the research agenda of the public university to serve the private needs of their corporate partners.  This is not the fault of individual faculty members but is part of aa larger systemic problem.

Public universities are caught in an archetypical “fixes that fail” feedback loop, in which they find their budgets being squeezed by a public that doesn’t entirely trust the university (or any large institution for that matter).  University leaders look to their friends in industry and among the big agricultural commodity groups for political and financial help – and what happens?  Public distrust is confirmed and the public budgets get squeezed even more.  University leaders then turn back to their private partners and ask for more help (and money).  It is a vicious cycle, spinning public universities in a direction away from their primary mission of serving the public good.

While it is possible for public/private partnerships to be created that serve both the public good as well as the private benefit of funders, this requires a transparent financial system, clear articulation of mission, public review of the partnership, and honest and open discussion about the purpose and limits of the partnership.  University scientists who are concerned with a public system that serves the private benefit of groups with economic and political power may feel isolated and afraid to challenge a system which celebrates such partnerships.  While we celebrate leadership in the abstract, most academics shy away from this topic.

There are few university leaders (I’ve known a few by the way) willing to encourage a public dialogue on how private funding might influence the public research agenda.  We might ask, where are the courageous voices telling the truth that we read about in novels and see in the cinema?  Where are the elders – wise with experience?  Turning again to some lines of poetry, T.S. Eliot asks;

Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

Have our leaders “deceived themselves” and become “quiet-voiced elders” on this topic? Again, I don’t blame the individual administrators (and I’ve known some courageous ones). The larger systemic problem is that most leaders become disconnected from those they are charged to serve over time.  This is true for the U.S. Congress, multinational corporations, large commodity groups, and university leaders – in fact all leaders of all hierarchical organizations.  My next blog will examine this problem.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share your own thoughts in the comments box below.  To stay connected, please join my Facebook Group, Just Food Now, or follow my World.edu posts.  And if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our 15-credit online certificate or our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.

Five Truths I: modern agriculture is not sustainable

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In my blog, Five Truths Intro: reflections on agricultural research and education, I introduced what I intend to be a series of posts exploring some issues that have concerned me for most of my academic career.  Some years ago, I surveyed a group of university researchers and educators working in the areas of sustainable agriculture regarding their thoughts on five “truth statements”.  This blog reflects the first of “my truths’ and their response. Perhaps this is self-indulgent.  So be it.

My Truth Onethe form of agriculture currently practiced in most of the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak biological toxins and soil into the surrounding environment, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers off the land.

“Yes, we know all that.”

This was the most common response among survey participants.  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating ‘don’t agree‘ and 5 signifying ‘full agreement‘, 90% choose either 4 or 5 (strong or full agreement).  One of the respondents summed it up by writing:

 “Most political organizations, institutions and commodity agricultural organizations are aware of the social/natural resource problems, however, they lack the knowledge and understanding that would enable them to take constructive steps towards sustainable systems.  Instead they are locked into old patterns and keep trying the same old things.

This is so true.  We are all locked into old patterns and keep trying the same things, or making small changes ‘around the edges’.  Indications that something is amiss in the world go unnoticed (or noticed only by a minority of activists).  Think about:

  • A ‘dead zone’ where oxygen breathers don’t survive in the Gulf of Mexico and reports from respectable sources about projected global water shortages are mostly ignored.
  • Potato production increases to satisfy our desire for French fries, while more potato farmers go out of business.
  • A billion people hungry or malnourished and another billion over-fed.
  • And yet another food recall.  Sometimes people get sick or die.

We know what is happening; yet we stay on the same path.  I’ve written dozens of blogs about the non-sustainability of modern agriculture and I have lots of followers in the social media.  We agree… and nothing changes.  Another participant wrote:

 ‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.  If you don’t like what you are currently getting, then you need to try something different.  The industrial model of agriculture is not sustainable.’

While there are some people who honestly support the industrial model of agriculture, many researchers and educators know something is wrong but can’t see an alternative.  Their response to this first truth is usually something like…

“yes, but aren’t we doing better?” 

And the answer is surely, yes.  Or they might say…

“so what choice do we have?  We have to feed the ever increasing human population, don’t’ we?   Only the modern industrial system can feed the world.  Right?

And of course the answer is yes … and no.  Yes, food is a human right and we have an obligation to make sure nobody is hungry.

And no…industrial farming isn’t the only way, but in the absence of a clear and proven alternative path, we fall back on that which we know best – industrial agriculture with its quick fixes and addiction to growth at all costs.  We have a vague idea there is a better way (which many of us call agroecology) but the ecological path seems treacherous, full of unknowns.  T.S. Eliot assures us this is the right path when he writes;

  …in order to arrive at what you do not know. 

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

Right, and isn’t research ‘the way of ignorance?”  When we admit what we do not know, we are then able to begin the search for a better way.  Eliot continues;

 . . . And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

Today, we must admit that we do not clearly know the path to an ecological agriculture.  Experiments in tillage practices, integrated pest management, multiple cropping, cycling of nutrients and the like surely point us in the right direction.  But when challenged by proponents of the industrial way, we must admit ignorance.  That is the beginning of the search for a better way that we intuitively know is based on principles of ecology.

And who will lead us in this path of discovery?  Surely those farmers and non-profit research and educational organizations devoted to agricultural sustainability are key.  And what of the universities?   It seems that the public university is a place where this work SHOULD be happening to a significant extent.  A survey participant wrote:

“This undertaking is beyond the resources or capability of any single institution (public or private) and therefore can only be achieved through the re-establishment of some form of commons.”

 It was both funny and sad that this survey participant didn’t recognize the publicly funded land grant university as a “commons.”   It was once upon a time.

My next “truth” blog looks at one of the underlying causes for this problem.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts. And finally if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our 15-credit online certificate or our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.

Five Truths Intro: reflections on public agricultural research and education

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If you have followed my blogs on systems thinking, you’ll know that I teach a class called Agricultural Systems Thinking, which introduces students to practical tools for trying to understand complex and often controversial problems.  This semester, some of my students have chosen to practice using systems thinking tools to explore the relationship between the public university and multinational agricultural corporations as a class project.

Student interest in this topic was triggered by a financial gift to the university to help support our new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center.  About half the students initially supported the gift and about half opposed. This project will help them understand this particular event within a larger context, which is one of the strengths of systems thinking.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the status of agricultural research and education in the U.S. (which has engaged me, employed me, and treated me well for over 40 years).  This blog introduces “my truths” about the system that was originally created to serve the public good and fails in so many ways.  (I invite you to share your thoughts on how your own truth might be similar or different in the comments box below).

A time for change

I address this topic at a time when my own university is working to restore the public trust and re-energize agricultural research and education – following many years of erosion due to lack of attention and active divestment by administrators.  I’ve written earlier about the “revitalization of the land grant system” at the University of Massachusetts.  As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Land Grant University System established by Abraham Lincoln, many of us will want to celebrate our illustrious past.  I applaud this recognition of the past, while at the same time hope we will examine our current vision and values as we focus on the future.

I believe this “revitalization” represents a long-overdue awakening by public agricultural universities nationwide to the failures of industrial agriculture (which has had many successes as well, of course).  This transformation began in the late 1980’s, when groups of farmers invented what they called “sustainable agriculture.”

The creation of the UMass Center for Agriculture and the recent investment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture represent a significant commitment to agricultural research and education.  I am hopeful but realistic about our chances for real change.  Here is why…..

Lets ask some people I trust about “my truths”

A while back I sent an electronic survey to a group of colleagues who were involved in university research and education in support of long-term agricultural sustainability.  The survey tested the degree of agreement or disagreement with five “truth statements” related to the public university’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

The response to the survey was reassuring (not only because many of the respondents agreed with “my truths”) but also because of the rapid response.  Within a few hours, I had 50 survey responses, and within a few days 73 scientists dedicated to building a research and education system that supports a more sustainable agriculture had participated in the survey.

This blog introduces the “five truths.”  Future blog posts will add further reflections on each, based partially on feedback from survey participants, partially on my own thinking and experience, and partially on lines of poetry from T.S. Eliot.  Some of my friends reminded me that these “five truths” have all been said before.  Well, maybe so.  But Eliot seems to assure me that some things are worth repeating when he writes (2);

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again?

 Well yes… I’m saying it again!

Why bother you may ask?  Why say it again?  Why survey agricultural researchers and educators about what they think?  I mean, who really cares what the sustainable agriculture research and education university community thinks?  We all know that power resides in the hands of corporations and politicians who would largely disagree with the “five truths” anyway.  Right?   An answer comes from Donella Meadows (3), who wrote that the first step in changing deeply rooted paradigms was:

“…you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder…” 

Finding justification for my impulsive inclination to continue to speak my personal truth (louder) by “pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm,”  I decided to share these reflections with you.  I recognize this blog will aggravate some readers.  My intent is to encourage exploration and dialogue, just as my students are attempting to do in a responsible, thoughtful manner.  We’ll see if I succeed….

My Five Truths (for discussion)

Below I’ve simply listed my “five truths” in raw form, without elaboration or interpretation.  Future posts will explore each statement at a bit more depth.  So here we go…..

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My Truth Onethe form of agriculture currently practiced in most of the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak biological toxins and soil into the surrounding environment, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers off the land.

My Truth Two the public agricultural research and education (land grant) system created to serve the public good is influenced by the private agenda of multinational  corporations, large agricultural commodity groups, and disciplinary-bound science societies.

My Truth Three: the leadership of the farming community (in the form of well-financed national commodity organizations) and multinational food corporations have too much influence over federal farm policy, often at the expense of consumers, small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

My Truth Four: many of us in agriculture are running ever faster to stay even –  on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term solutions, researchers pursue the next grant, and teachers offer ever bigger classes.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we relate to the earth.

My Truth Five: the quest for sustainability of the planet, including human and non-human communities, may be our best hope for public universities, the farming communities we love, and for ourselves as human beings. 

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NOTE: I recognize the danger of making these bold statements without empirical evidence and ask for your patience.  Further elaboration of these statements will follow in future blogs (and are linked to the “my truth” statements above.  For now, I’d appreciate your initial reaction in the comments box below. 

Thanks.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

(1) The origin of this blog was an essay titled ‘My Truths Today ‘ It’s Still All About Sustainability’ which was submitted (upon request) to a sustainable agriculture newsletter of a public university in the Midwestern U.S.   Upon receipt, the essay was deemed too controversial to print by the university administration.  It has not been submitted for publication elsewhere but has been shared with friends and colleagues.  The original essay has been slightly modified for this blog.

(2) Four Quartets’ were published in 1943, toward the end of Eliot’s illustrious career.

(3) This quote is from Donella Meadows, published in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute. December 1999.  For more, see the archives at http://www.donellameadows.org/.

 

The U.S. needs 50 million farmers – including local gardeners

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One of the readings I share with the students in the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences  program is Fifty Million Farmers by Richard Heinberg.  This reading is an abbreviated version of an address he presented to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 2006.  It is a powerful declaration that in a world in which climate change, diminishing supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel, and increasing economic stress – our food supply is not guaranteed.  We need lots more farmers in lots more places!

I first heard of this outlandish idea in Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers.  She makes the additional claim that we not only need more farmers but our understanding of “farming” must include individual efforts to feed ourselves.  That is, even those of us who have gardens and perhaps domestic livestock to feed ourselves and our neighbors should be included in this call for more farming.

I like this idea……

I realize that some families who depend entirely on farming for their livelihood look askance at part-timers and gardeners, but my experience is that “hobbyists” are among the best customers at the local farmers market.  We need to be a bit more broadminded as we think about farming in the future.  So, while I work to support full time farmers in my region, I also encourage individuals to begin to take more responsibility for a portion of their food.   We need lots more farmers of all types! 

Think Globally and Farm Locally

I live in the northeastern U.S., in the region we think of as New England.  At times I play the “thought experiment” asking how would my region eat if the ships and planes stopped and all of the bridges on the Hudson River went away.  New England south of Canada would (almost) be an island – a big one, but still cut off from much of our current source of food.  Now I’m not proposing this as a likelihood….. but still?  Think about it.

 

My friend, Dr. Brian Donahue, a faculty member at Tufts University did a rough evaluation of what we could grow in New England if we had the political will to do so.  He suggested that we could grow:

  • Most of our vegetables on 250,000 acres
  • Most of our dry beans on 500,000 acres
  • Half of our fruit on 250,000 acres
  • All of our dairy and most of our beef and lamb on grass on 4,000,000 acres with 3,000,000 in pasture)
  • All of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs but mostly using imported grain on acreage already in large animal pasture or in woodlots
  • Some portion of our grain for specialty products and perhaps feed and vegetable oil on 1,000,000 acres

The major constraints are:

  • lack of vision and will
  • lack of training/education
  • failure to invest

Well, one of the ways to develop the political will would be for more individuals to care about the source of their food – and gardeners care!   We could grow more food in New England and some of that food could be grown in our own backyards.

Grow Food Amherst

A local initiative got off the ground this past month, in which residents of my hometown, Amherst, MA, decided to “roll up their sleeves” and get to work to help our town become more food self-sufficient (trying to “keep up with our neighbors” Grow Food Northampton).

The first project was a “gleaning and cooking together” community effort in which food that would have gone to waste was collected by volunteers and delivered to the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen and food distribution center, as well as a local church.

 

Organized by the town’s Sustainabilty Coordinator in cooperation with a new organization, Grow Food Amherst, and Transition Amherst, this work attracted about 20 volunteers who collected sweet potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (that was too small for market).

A few days later another community event was organized as part of the national Food Day celebration of local and sustainable food for residents to learn to preserve and make soup from the food that was gleaned from local fields.

In addition to these efforts organized by volunteers, the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the UMass Permaculture Initiative partnered with the Amherst Public Schools to plant fruit trees at three elementary schools and are making plans for vegetable gardens in the spring.  Following the lead of Todmorden, England, permaculturists at UMass are committed to growing food in pubic spaces such as local schools.

NOTE: Anyone who wants to be added to the mailing list for Grow Food Amherst should contact John Gerber or add yourself to our mailing list at GrowFoodAmherst.

We can grow much more locally!

This is not to say that we should rely on gardening or even backyard homesteading to feed the American population but – I believe if we each took more responsibility for some portion of our own food – individually and as a community – we would also create more market demand for food grown by local farmers.  In the U.S., about one-percent of the food is sold directly from farmers to consumers.  We can do better!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

 

Who should study sustainable food and farming – ONLINE?

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I was contacted recently by a teacher in a metropolitan area who wanted to quit his job and start a farm. While this might sound strange to many, it is an inquiry I’m getting on a fairly regular basis lately.  He asked me if I thought he should take one of our university online classes in Sustainable Food and Farming.  _________________________

I usually try to avoid giving someone I don’t know advice, but this time I told him “NO!”  Don’t take more classes!  Anyone with a strong educational background would surely be comfortable studying sustainable food and farming online – but THAT is not what most folks need to be successful in farming, food marketing, or working in the area of local and sustainable food advocacy and education. 

What they need is practical experience!

I advised this individual to volunteer or intern at a local farm, food market, or non-profit for at least a year – more is better.  I realize that lots of people today are looking for education related to backyard gardening, homesteading, farming, and creating a food related business – but I still can’t recommend university online courses for most people.  There are other (less expensive) options such as the online workshops offered by the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project.  These workshops are an excellent, inexpensive way to enhance your learning.

I advise most people to not take university online courses, but I do recognize for some people college credit is important.  So we need to ask….

Who should study sustainable food and farming – ONLINE?

Based on our experience with students at the University of Massachusetts, the answer is clear.  The online approach is perfect if you;

  • …recently graduated from high school are not quite ready to make the leap to college – but plan to do so in the future, or;
  • …are working in a food or farming related business and want to earn academic credentials to improve your chances getting a loan or a grant, or;
  • …are studying at an academic institution that doesn’t offer this area of study and can transfer the academic credits, or;
  • …are already involved in a career and want to explore your options in a food or farming related enterprise and earn an academic credential.

We have had students in all four of these categories take online classes with us at UMass.  Most have given our classes very positive evaluations.  Those few who were disappointed were the same folks who really would have been been better off learning to farm by farming!

Nevertheless, the world is full of people who are unhappy in their present line of work (or study) and are looking for something more fulfilling.  Many of us believe our world would be better off if we had lots more local farms and markets.  So we encourage a select few to get both the practical experience AND to study the academic side of the local food system either online or in college.

But is there good work?  Great question!

I’ve written about this before in “Are there sustainable agriculture jobs after college?”  We must realize there is a difference between “finding a job” and engaging in good work.  In sustainable food and farming, finding a job (even during difficult economic times) may be easier than discovering your calling in life.   I encourage you not to sell yourself short.  Consider this short essay by Derrick Jensen Who Are You? before you choose a career path.  And recognize that in a rapidly changing world, experts suggest that the work that will be needed (and rewarded) 10 years from now, may not even have been invented yet!

Just a few of the areas of good work taken from my “finding work” page are:

  • small farm management
  • managing cooperative food store
  • processing local food for local sales
  • farm and nature center curator
  • urban community development food/garden educator
  • sustainable farming project manager and educator
  • and many more…..

Local farming, direct marketing, and being engaged in advocacy or education related to sustainable food and farming is good work!  But is it for you?

If you want to learn to farm or get involved in some aspect of the local and sustainable food business, just do it!  Apply for a job, volunteer or intern.

But for those individuals who fit one of the four categories above, the online approach may indeed make sense.  We currently have about a dozen students involved in our 15-credit Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming and about 200 or so students who take individual online courses with us each year.  Anyone with a high school diploma or GED is welcome to take our online courses.

If you are one of the select few for whom online university classes make sense, check out these  5-week online classes offered this winter:

Winter Session Online Courses (December 17 – January 19, 2013)

And see this link for a description of the 15-credit Online Certificate Program.

Price:  the cost of online courses offered through UMass Continuing and Professional Education vary, but our courses cost $371/credit, which is a lot – but much less than “going to college.”  There is also a $45 (one time) registration fee.  Generally financial aid is not available for online courses unless you are a full time university student.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.