We can't keep losing farmland and agriculture students

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A report released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that total farmland in the United States has decreased by 1 million acres since 2014. That's a loss of 18,000 farms. An August 2013 Science magazine editorial cited a 26 percent decline in federal spending on agriculture and food research over the previous decade. These numbers are dramatic and damning, not least of all because our nation's economic health relies upon vital rural communities, but because we are losing our country's most vital technological laboratories.

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Before there was Silicon Valley, there was the Fertile Crescent. The Industrial Revolution was only made possible by the Agricultural Revolution that preceded it. Flash freezing, a food technology that Cornell University helped perfect, nutritionally bolstered the growing urban centers of the early 20th-century. Agricultural technologies are the most ancient forms of innovation known to man, and yet we are quickly losing our ability to recognize the pioneering nature of agriculture, with the public and policymakers preferring what they perceive to be sexier science to the farmer next door.

And yet, today's farmers and consumers around the world are interconnected and interdependent in a way that is unprecedented in human history. This international food network is vulnerable to new diseases, increasing extreme weather events and pests. These risks threaten livelihoods, food chains, the environment and human health. We will need to feed more people than ever before in more global urban centers with fewer farmers, and we can only do that through the development of critical technologies that rely upon strong partnerships to support transformative research; a new workforce attracted to agricultural careers; and partnerships with the public to ensure that our citizens support adoption of innovative technologies into our agricultural systems.

Unlike the United States, China has increased its agricultural research and development funding in the 2000s, doubling investment from 2001 to 2008, resulting in an investment equivalent to $4 billion and a transformation of their economy. Here at home, private-sector support for agricultural research has been growing, and we've seen increases in private philanthropy, but we truly look to the federal government and specifically to the USDA for long-term investment across the spectrum of research, from applied to basic. These investments are needed to produce game-changing breakthroughs over time and allow agriculture to be the transformative technology it always has been.

It is no secret that the face of the American farmer is over 57, white and male; he often has no succession plan. The face of higher education agricultural educators is very similar. We need to introduce younger students — elementary, middle and high-school students from urban as well as rural areas — to the possibilities of careers in agriculture and related research fields. According to a recent report commissioned by the USDA, there will be 20,000 fewer university graduates in the fields of agriculture and the environment than will be needed in just the next five years. In order to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we will need a diverse population of agriculture researchers who can think outside the hectare and leverage the experience of nontraditional learners — including veterans, refugees from rural backgrounds, migrant farmworkers and female farm owners.

Last, but perhaps most important, is the need to convince a sometimes skeptical public, and Congress, of the importance and newsworthiness of agriculture. From the fields of Upstate New York to the acres of California, tradition is blending with technology in a marriage that will boost the national economy and address issues of food security and food justice.

One of the founders of Cornell University, Ezra Cornell, favored an education that was both classical and practical, the perfect embodiment of agricultural technology and the revolutionary promise it holds. It is also the reason why we all need to pay close attention to the state of agriculture in our nation and work to increase interest in this imperative innovating force, a classic science with contemporary applications.

Boor, Ph.D., is the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. She was a panelist at yesterday's U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Outlook Forum and serves on the board of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.