Since when is feeding the world a 'useless' career?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Recently, a Yahoo blogger wrote a list of the five "most useless" college degrees in America.

His top five were agriculture, fashion design, theater, animal science and horticulture.

Really? Three of the top five are ag-related?

Apparently he doesn't know (or understand) one of my favorite statistics: Four out of four people eat.

The story has many in the agriculture community in an uproar. Several have written letters and blogs refuting his article.

There is even a new Facebook page: "I Studied Agriculture and I Have a Job." In just a few days more than 4,000 people have added it to the pages they "like."

His article is full of incorrect facts. The truth is, 15 percent of employment opportunities are in agriculture-related fields, 5 percent more than just a few years ago, according to the USDA. Another study showed agriculture has a 7 percent unemployment rate (compared to 13 percent for architecture). Billions of dollars of our nation's economy are driven by the food industry.

Yet the story is still out there for anyone to Google, Bing or yes, even Yahoo.

It seems like another jab at those of who work hard to make sure everyone (no matter their income) has access to affordable food.

With most of our population living in sprawled-out, concrete cities, most people are many generations removed from agriculture. They seldom see working farms and farmers, so few know where their food comes from or how it is produced.

The positive side of that shows how efficient we are at what we do. Today's agriculturalists (with useless degrees or not) are some of the world's brightest and most innovative people we have in America.

And they are going to have to continue to be, if we are going to have enough to eat.

Our world population just hit 7 billion people and is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050. That means a lot of mouths to feed. Those people will also need places to live (more concrete) and more water to drink.

It only puts more pressure on our already decreasing natural resources.

In America, 98 percent of our farms are still family owned. Today's American farmer is able to feed 155 people using fewer resources than ever before. Yet, fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living.

All that is obtained by farmers and scientists (many with agriculture degrees) using their knowledge to do more with less.

Even though statistics show only 17 percent of Americans now live in rural areas, here in Saline County we are blessed with an agriculture economy. Each year more and more of our young college-educated men and women are coming back to our rural area to work in agriculture -- either on family farms or agriculture-related industries.

If you like rural America, then those degrees are certainly not useless.

And they are not useless if you want to continue enjoying the world's most abundant and affordable food supply.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Norman Borlaug, who had one of those so-called "useless degrees," used modern agriculture to save billions of people during the Green Revolution. He promoted fertilizer and hybrid seeds to replace subsistence farming. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He admitted his approach was not a Utopia, but "a change in the right direction."

He had critics, but his answer to them was simple and true.

"They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

I won't deny there are some problems with our food system. No doubt in some cases, our food is too processed and too fast, but that happens long after it leaves our local farms.

But that also reminds me of an old adage:

"People with enough to eat have lots of problems. People who don't have enough to eat have only one problem."

Note: This column was first published at Jan. 24, 2012. Marcia Gorrell will return next month with a new "Semi View" piece.