Last night, I attended a meeting of the Torch Club—a group of people from a variety of professions and disciplines who meet monthly for dinner and a talk by one of the members. Our speaker last night was Dr. Steve Smith, professor emeritus of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at Penn State. His topic: “Traditional Agriculture in Latin America.”
Steve focused on how village farmers in Peru used centuries-old techniques, including terracing to raise a variety of crops year-around in a very arid climate. It was, at one level, a very interesting travelogue, with wonderful photos of rural Peru and the farming families who produce 27 or more varieties of potatoes and other vegetables in this demanding climate. However, at another level, it was a brilliant insight into how important these traditional farming techniques are becoming as the world changes.
As Steve described traditional threshing process used in Peru, others in the group raised their hands to say, “That’s also done in Egypt” and “I’ve seen that in Turkey, too.” Steve noted that there are more than a billion traditional farmers worldwide and that their work is critical to the economic health of many countries around the world. He also reported that, in the next 30 years, the world’s demand for food will grow by 50%. In the past, agriculturalists looked to the Green Revolution to meet this demand. However, the impact of the Green Revolution has begun to level off. Supporting traditional farmers—and helping them improve the output of traditional farming techniques—will be critical to meeting the world’s need for food in the next generation. Steve emphasized that the goal should not be to replace traditional farming with something else. These traditional techniques have proven to be effective in mountainous and arid areas where other approaches would fail. The key is to help these farmers be more productive within the context of their traditional methods.
America’s research excellence in agriculture began as a response to the Industrial Revolution. The societal worry then (in the late 1800s) was that we might not be able to support the immigration and urbanization that drove industrialization; we feared we could not produce enough food to feed the cities. Land grant universities took responsibility for agricultural education and research and for extending that knowledge to farmers and rural communities through the Cooperative Extension Service. It was, in reflection, a wonderful example of governments and social institutions working together in a sustained effort to meet an ongoing societal need. American agricultural education became a model for the world.
Today we are living in a globalized Information Society. The challenge will be to find productive ways in which our universities—in the United States and elsewhere—can help make traditional farming and other forms of farming around the world more productive in the decades ahead. Do we need a global counterpart to the 19th century U.S. commitment to agricultural research and education?