Cooperative Extension’s Finest Hour?

Even as Cooperative Extension faces the worst budgetary cutbacks in its almost century-long history, it is being called on to do the unthinkable:  To help farming reinvent itself by reducing its environmental footprint without eroding the high level of efficiency that characterizes the current model.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, Professor John Beddington, chief science adviser to the U.K. government, put this challenge into grim perspective, stressing that  global agriculture will have to produce 50 percent more food by 2030 to feed the growing population, projected to be 9.5 billion by mid-century.

Farmers are being called on to feed billions more, despite a future of drastically reduced supplies of fossil fuels and water resources — two resources critical to the success of modern agriculture within the last century.

That is the irony — and the opportunity — we face as Cooperative Extension educators.

For their part, British policy makers have already begun exploring ways to build a farm model that incorporates both sustainability and efficiency.

Stressing the need for Britain to grow more of its food while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, Hilary Benn, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the environment, outlined the first new British agricultural policy in decades, one that possibly may offer insight into the kind of global farming model that eventually may emerge.

“We need to produce more food.  We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health,” he said in announcing the policy.

Benn said British consumers have a role to play by demanding greener food from retailers and by wasting less, and, equally significant, by growing more of their own food and developing local markets for these homegrown products.

He and other British policymakers believe this strategy would enhance community spirit as well as physical and community health.

But will it also secure what Beddington and other scientists wish to achieve within the next few decades: creating a farming market that is both sustainable and efficient enough to feed 3 billion more people?

To be fair, in addition to calling for expanding homegrown food production and local farm markets, many leading British researchers and policy makers also concede that that cutting-edge science will have an even more prominent role to play.

For his part, Beddington says that feeding the emerging world population will require production of more crops on less land and greater use of emerging technologies, especially the genetic modification of food and nanotechnology.

How these competing objectives ultimately will be balanced out is uncertain.  What is virtually certain is that some farming model that incorporates cost-efficiency and sustainability will emerge.  

Daunting as it is, this challenge presents us Extension educators with an immense opportunity, one that far surpasses the challenge we faced roughly a hundred years ago introducing mechanized farming practices to tens of thousands of family farms.

The important reality to bear in mind — one that we should proclaim to our clients and stakeholders frequently and unashamedly — is that no other public or private entity is as equipped to help our farmers build this new model.  Yes, public and private researchers have a critical role to play, but only we are equipped to provide the nation’s farmers with the big picture — and by big picture, I mean the complete set of skills and altered thinking required to make this transition.

Yes, as cloudy as the Cooperative Extension future often seems, we nonetheless have a vital role to play in the future — one that very well could be prove to be our finest hour.

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