Ag College Deans: Nation’s Leaders Need To Make Science A Priority

05 Dec Ag College Deans: Nation’s Leaders Need To Make Science A Priority

Growing Georgia Magazine, December 5th, 2012

We just went through an entire political campaign in which almost no one mentioned science. But what else has a greater impact on people’s lives?

When Hurricane Sandy tore a path of death and destruction along the Eastern Seaboard, scientists saved untold numbers of lives because they were able to predict the storm’s severity and impact, which allowed communities to prepare much better than they ever have in the past.

When a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami in March 2011, scientists sounded the alarm so thousands of people could get to higher ground before the wall of water arrived.

When the worst drought in 50-plus years burned up crops across the United States this year, the scientists who develop new agricultural tools and technologies saved consumers from much higher food prices and shortages.

What do these natural disasters have in common? Without science, they probably would have been much worse. Because our expertise is in agriculture and natural resources, let’s take a closer look at the 2012 drought.

Roughly two-thirds of our country was in drought by this summer’s growing season, the U.S. Drought Monitor estimates. Federal agriculture officials expect grocery store and restaurant consumers will feel the drought’s effects first in higher prices for beef, pork, poultry and milk products. That’s because reduced crops will cause higher feed costs, and fewer animals being raised for meat and dairy production.

Over the coming months, prices also are expected to tick upward for packaged and processed foods, as manufacturers have to pay more for reduced supplies of the grains used in those products.

In the short term, scientists can’t do much about a drought and the resulting rise in food prices. But science is all about the long term.

We can’t pinpoint exactly how much worse the drought could have been, but we do know that because of agricultural research advances in the last few decades, modern crops are better equipped to withstand extremes. And scientists are developing technologies and practices to ensure that livestock and poultry are safe, healthy and biosecure during trying times.

Scientists at land-grant universities like ours have developed corn and soybean varieties, and best practices that produce higher yields, thus helping to make up for crop losses in drought-stricken areas. Around the globe, agricultural scientists are working on new crop varieties that require less water and fertilizer, or that have stronger resistance to diseases that could devastate our food supply even without a drought.

Still other scientists at universities and in the private sector are studying how thoughtful use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides can help preserve the health of our soil and water, and how to meet demand for animal products in environmentally sustainable, humane ways.

But none of this disaster prevention happens without public support. America needs policies that support science, particularly the agricultural sciences that have given us the cheapest, most plentiful and safest food in the world. Congress and the president should not be afraid to talk about science as a key priority.

Throughout the 20th century, farm productivity in the United States improved dramatically, along with the introduction of refrigeration and a national transportation network that made it possible for most families to enjoy fresh, safe, healthy food. Even better, because of advances, Americans today pay a smaller percentage of their income for food than they did 50 years ago: about 10 percent of disposable income now versus 16 percent in 1962.

Could our world face a food disaster in the coming decades? Certainly. The stakes keep rising in the ability to feed billions more people. The risks increase as climate becomes more extreme and natural disasters continue to happen. A fast-growing, hungry global population combined with fewer public resources devoted to research on increased productivity and disease resistance could lead to food shortages or skyrocketing prices, along with grim long-term effects on our soil and water.

Scientists aren’t superheroes who can prevent catastrophes, unfortunately. But they do pretty amazing work, and if our national leaders do more to support public science as a solution to our challenges, we’ll still be able to say, “It could have been worse.”


WENDY WINTERSTEEN is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.

ALLEN S. LEVINE is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

ALAN GRANT is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

BOBBY MOSER is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University.