Why We Should Encourage Agriculture Studies At Private Colleges

The global food crisis was the theme at the Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights that I attended this past weekend. Yet, almost all of the 40+ delegates hailed not from our nation’s agricultural universities — known as land grant schools—but from private universities. To me, that raised a fundamental concern: how can we go beyond land grant colleges and incorporate agriculture programs into our elite private institutions?

The 2008 food crisis that pushed millions into the ranks of the hungry, and which triggered riots in over 30 countries, served as a wake-up call about the fragile state of global agriculture. Today’s students will be called upon to address this problem. Yet, if our top colleges and universities aren’t teaching agriculture, then how we encourage their graduates to enter this field? 

Indeed, the very complexity of the current food situation underlines the importance of bringing agriculture into schools outside the land grant system. Combating world hunger isn’t merely about increasing yields, a myth I dispel in my recent PolicyMic column. Rather, it’s about recognizing the social transformations associated with particular types of agricultural systems, especially how certain systems increase the vulnerability of the world’s poorest people. There is hardly a better way to address these social factors than by integrating agriculture programs into anthropology, geography, and sociology departments.

For example, one of the biggest problems with the 1960s Green Revolution—which averted starvation in India and Latin America—is that its package of capital-intensive crop technologies displaced small farmers who couldn’t afford the inputs. Yet, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Gates Foundation, and the World Bank are pushing this very approach in Africa. And as Northern Arizona University political scientist Carol Thompson said at the Northwestern conference, the World Bank’s narrative about longtime neglect of agricultural development is misleading. In reality, such lack of investment resulted from the Bank’s deliberate scheme of market-driven development.

Critical social theory disciplines provide the key path to challenging the World Bank’s, USAID’s, and the Gates Foundation’s ideological hegemony over development, most evident in their emphasis on Green Revolution crop technologies and neoliberal economic policies.

Complementing the social sciences, biology departments can teach the agro-ecological approaches central to enabling farmers to remain on their land. Agro-ecology relies not on chemical inputs but on the use of nitrogen-producing crops that serve as a fertilizer substitute.

Establishing academic programs focused on agriculture will lay the foundation for campus-wide engagement on food issues. Last year, Dartmouth held a forum on genetically-modified crops, bringing together top experts for an exciting debate. And the recent Northwestern conference was filled with a slate of influential experts in agricultural development.

Another possibility for campus involvement is university dining services to purchase more locally grown food. This would help students understand the detrimental nutritional consequences of large-scale industrial agriculture, and also teach them how government policies have long favored industrial food systems at the expense of small farmers.

Indeed, the late Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and the father of the Green Revolution, was extremely passionate about youth involvement in fighting world hunger. As part of the World Food Prize—an annual award to honor a person who has made an outstanding contribution to global agriculture—Borlaug created the Youth Institute because he wanted to inspire young people to engage with critical global food issues. Borlaug’s colleagues have said that the Youth Institute was his favorite part of the entire World Food Prize symposium. Thus, to engage more American students on agricultural development issues would be to answer Dr. Borlaug’s call.

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