Feeding People Matters

Keynote address to the North American Agricultural Advisory Network in conjunction with the World Food Prize
October 21, 2021 | Des Moines, Iowa
Colorado State University System Chancellor Tony Frank

What do you say at the first public event of a new entity?  Everything you do sets precedent; there is no history to guide you.  Or is there?  Take a walk with me back into time – back 18 decades, in fact, to 1842.

  • In that year in Mexico City, the Directorate General of Industry, including a department to promote agriculture, is formed.
  • Almost a decade later, in 1853, the first national agricultural college of Mexico is launched in Chihuahua.
  • A bit more than half a decade after that, in 1859, the first Canadian agricultural college is launched in Quebec.
  • And well known to those of us from the US, a short time later in 1863, land grant universities and the USDA were created on the same day.
  • Less than half a decade later in 1867, Canada also created a Department of Agriculture.
  • Then in 1886, Canada formed their first five experimental farms followed the next year
  • By American agricultural experiment stations.
  • In 1890, America added Historically Black Colleges and Universities to begin to try and diversify agricultural education in America.
  • A decade later in 1902, Canada sent out Agricultural trains – a train filled with experts who stopped in various communities to present modern ag practices to the local population across Canada.
  • In another decade, 1911, Canada launched a major expansion of their experimental farms and substations…
  • …and in that same year, groups of Mexican agronomists identified a need and began to travel the country in groups making local community presentations on agricultural best practices.
  • 1914 brought the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in the United States, and with it, the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service.
  • 1914 also brought WWI and the first significant test of extension in the US – helping to increase wheat production and manage war-related farm labor shortages.
  • There were major expansions of governmental and academic agricultural programs in Mexico in the 1920s following the revolution.
  • The Great Depression saw crippling drought across Canada and the US – and desperate conditions for farm workers that hit Mexican immigrants to the US particularly hard.
  • Then in the 1950s and early 1960s, Cooperative Extension in the US makes a major effort to have family farms (essentially just above subsistence operations) begin to think about revenues and expenses; profits and losses. Farms are annually handed a small gray-blue ledger to track their revenues and expenses.  Interestingly, farming in this period was characterized by crop rotations and grazing sequences that assured nutrients were recycled in the period before affordable inputs.  Today, those practices would go by names of organic, regenerative agriculture, sustainable farming.
  • The 1970s onward is a period of relative stability characterized by a rising influence of the private sector in providing agribusiness advice.
  • In 1994, we saw NAFTA go into effect – renegotiated in 2020.
  • And in 2021: Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services authorizes the North American Agricultural Advisory Network.

So are we new?  Or have we existed in different forms for nearly 200 years?  I’d argue that this timeline is our heritage, our lineage.  And while we can say that we’ve gotten some things right, and made mistakes along the way, this common history shares things that are still foundational today:

  • The knowledge that food and water are basic human needs that cannot be ignored.
  • The belief that knowledge is to be shared rather than hoarded.
  • Understanding that the linkage of research to application improves lives in real time – and this matters.
  • And that we all share a responsibility at the national level to recognize and support the previous three points – as vital to national security, economic health, and the well-being of our people.

Another thing that strikes me is the commonality of dates.  I doubt those commonalities are coincidental, and so it likely points to the communication across North American borders with what might be considered the best practices of the day, even as our nations were experiencing their own unique and at times transformational challenges.

In short, what we do here today is nominally new, but it is effectually rooted in principals that our predecessors have been putting into practice for almost two centuries.  Across civil wars and revolutions, the great depression and powerful economic cycles, global conflicts and social upheavals, this truth abides:  feeding people mattered yesterday, it matters today, and it will matter tomorrow.

Today we discuss sustainability, the importance of bridging wealth gaps, urban-rural divides, and divisions around size of the production unit.  We discuss how to address global protein and calorie insecurity – AND consumer preferences for how that protein and those calories are produced.  That’s a tall order – and one that can only be met through collaboration and partnerships.

That realization, I think, gives us our charge for the NAAAN:  to stay connected to the foundational elements of our heritage; to share our best practices; and to never lose sight of the fact that our actions serve our fellow human beings, regardless of national boundaries, race, religion, or language.  This is important work.  That’s why Colorado State University is proud to host NAAAN and why we at CSU are proud to do this work with all of you.

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