Agriculture's Star Rises in Academia

Published on GazetteNET (http://www.gazettenet.com)

OPINION: Georgana M. Foster: Ag’s star rises in academia

When I read of the plan of Amherst College to follow Hampshire College in having a farm to grow veggies for the dining hall, and for the University of Massachusetts to activate its farm, I was fascinated.

When we arrived on the UMass campus 55 years ago, it was not far from the days of being Mass Aggie, a school which the college at the south end of town thought of as an institution of “hick” farmers. Amherst College would never have dreamed of imitating them. Now all are joined in extolling “agricultural fundamentalism,” the doctrine that says putting your hands in the soil to grow things is socially ideal.

In the mid-20th century, it tended to be forgotten that a graduate of Amherst College, William Clark, the first president of Massachusetts College of Agriculture in the 19th century, went to Hokkaido province in Japan and founded a college of agriculture in the city Sopporo.

By the 1970s, influenced by a number of faculty members of the College of Agriculture within UMass who had gone to work under the U.S. Agency for International Development in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and India, a Center for International Agriculture was founded and contracts signed to work with several countries.

Here is the opportunity for the college students in our midst to learn about the interdependence of agricultural production in the world. Many in the farming bubble in the Valley suppose that it would be possible to eat only food produced in a 100-mile radius of Amherst, not realizing what goes into their lattes, chai teas and pizzas.

Backyard gardens are fine, but they cannot feed the world.

I am a native of Iowa, with relatives still farming there. My spouse grew up on a Rhode Island dairy farm with a vegetable stand and went on to teach resource economics at UMass. But we met in India and returned many times for him to teach in agriculture colleges. We personally experienced the shortage of food grains that led India to stop importing wheat from the United States in 1965 and to use the seeds and techniques developed by Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace prize for his work in Mexico.

By the end of the 20th century, however, there was much criticism of India’s “Green Revolution” method with little recognition that during the period since 1965 the population India has to feed has grown from 300 million to one billion people.

I hope faculty members in economics, political science, history and sociology will join the food scientists and biologists in the colleges in discussing controversial ideas such as genetically-modified food, the Farm Bill in Congress, the relation of global warming to drought, food stamps, obesity versus starving children, community gardens, the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization, how to share river waters in the United States and how to have enough water for agriculture in the semi-arid tropics.

This is the kind of knowledge about how the world eats that a federally-established university and the other colleges in the Five College consortium are able to supply.

Georgana M. Foster, formerly of Leverett, lives in Amherst.

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