Extension’s Fire Bell in the Night — Or Something Close

JFK at Rice University

President Kennedy speaking in 1962 at Rice University

If it’s not exactly Thomas Jefferson’s fire bell in the night, it comes awfully close.

What I mean is this growing public cynicism about scientific progress in the decades following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Three-Mile Island, Challenger and Chernobyl crises.

We Extension professionals and educators have been swimming against the tide of history ever since.

There was a time when this nation invested virtually boundless faith in progress.  A century ago, the Cooperative Extension mission was conceived in this faith.

For a reminder of just how deep and passionate this faith once was, refer to the JFK’s memorable Rice University speech (posted below).

“Man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.” Kennedy said, outlining his vision for a manned moon mission, which was completed, according to this expressed wishes, within the decade.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it.”

If any speech once summarized the American creed, it is this one.  Yet, today, almost a half century later, what once seem fresh and vibrant would be regarded by many as outdated, if not palpably naive.

The growing, widely expressed public cynicism associated with scientific advancement and achievement holds major implications for Cooperative Extension.

As I said, perhaps perhaps this growing cynicism doesn’t constitute a fire bell in the night, but it comes awfully close. 

To our credit, we Extension professionals have struggled to accommodate it as best we can.

Anyone involved in my line of work knows about all the furtive lip-biting that occurs day in and day out as our experts field calls about free-range chickens or organic gardening.

They know that these activities, while filling a niche, will not feed a world.  And feeding the world is precisely what we must do within the next three decades — a considerably more populated world that will be struggling to feed 3 billion more mouths with considerably straitened supplies of water and energy.

As unpalatable as this may seem to some, the solutions will require the same JFK-style “quest for knowledge and progress” that characterized previous scientific leaps.  And make no mistake about: Feeding 3-billion extra mouths in the next few decades will require the same kind monumental effort that characterized last century’s agricultural revolution.

It will require nothing less than —perish the thought — scientific farming principles, which will be expressed not only in smart irrigation and precision farming methods but also in considerably more controversial technologies such as genetically modified crops and nanotechnology.

Back to that phrase again: fire bell in the night.  Sooner or later, Extension professionals will be forced to cut to the chase.  Sooner or later, we will have to tie our fortunes to scientific farming methods, much as we have in the past.

Why? Because there is no third way in farming.  Yes, there is every reason to incorporate sustainable practices into modern farming methods, but the model we have constructed over the past 100 years can only be modified, not replaced.

Borrowing from JFK, just as Extension rode the first wave of the modern farming revolution of the 20th century, it must occupy the crest of the first wave of the next one — the 21st century farming revolution.

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