Food Security and STEM Education

Stephen DeAngelis

December 5, 2014

The World Food Prize believes “The Greatest Challenge in Human History” is answering the question: “Can We Sustainably Feed the 9 Billion People on our Planet by the Year 2050?” The answer to that question will be “no,” if the world can’t get enough young people interested in the field of agriculture. According to an article from Agri-Pulse, there is “a growing gap between the supply of new graduates trained in agriculture-related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and the demand for young professionals in related roles by global food and agriculture employers.” [“Report shows need for STEM talent to address global food security,” Agri-Pulse, 16 October 2014] Part of the problem might be image. So much effort has been put into idealizing the traditional family farmer that younger generations may see the agricultural industry as backward rather than forward looking. Images of farmers dressed in overalls with their wives standing beside them dressed in denim jeans and cowboy boots can seem incongruous with the vibrant information age. The fact of the matter is, however, that today’s agriculture industry is becoming more high tech every day and feeding the world is becoming an increasingly urgent imperative. Both of those facts should make a career in agriculture attractive to Millennials and members of Generation Z (or whatever we end up calling the following generation). Karen Foster, a sociologist and a Banting Post-Doctoral Fellow at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, states, “It turns out that 20- and 30-somethings are looking for more than just a job. They want work that is meaningful and consistent with their socially and environmentally responsible values.” [“What’s Good about Generation Y?Greater Good, 24 January 2013] If she’s correct, feeding the world, fostering global food security, and preventing starvation seems like just the ticket.

 

The Agri-Pulse article reports that the STEM Food & Ag Council had released a study that “recommends that the food and agriculture industries work closely with educational institutions on closing the employment gap necessary to sustainably feed an expected global population of 9 billion people by 2050. It includes a detailed analysis of university enrollment and workforce trends in six agriculture fields: agricultural business and management, agriculture mechanization and engineering, animal sciences, plant and soil science, food science and technology, and other life sciences.” The article continues:

“The STEM Food & Ag Council found substantial career opportunities in the food and agriculture industries for the next generation of young people and calls on millennials to pursue STEM education. The report’s key findings show:

  • Food and agriculture industries hired nearly 34,000 people per month from January to August 2014.
  • One-fourth of current food and agriculture professionals are age 55 or older, so workforce attrition will create additional opportunities for young professionals to advance in their careers.
  • An aggregate growth of 4.9 percent in STEM employment opportunities in advanced agriculture fields is projected over the next five years, adding 33,100 new positions.”

For a generation whose employment opportunities have not been all that bright, considering a growth industry (no pun intended) like agriculture is a good idea. Iowa Lieutenant Governor and STEM Food & Ag Council Chair Kim Reynolds (@KimReynoldsIA), notes, “We live in a knowledge-based, global economy, and it is critical that our students be prepared for the jobs and opportunities of the 21st century, and that the food and agriculture sector can meet its growing demand for young professionals.” Vice-chair of the STEM Food & Ag Council Paul Schickler, who is also president of DuPont Pioneer, added, “Meeting the ever-increasing global demand for food will require a whole new generation of scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs. The opportunities are growing, but we must apply new solutions to fill these critical jobs in the long term.” Not every member of Generation Y has turned a blind eye to the agricultural center. As I reported in a previous article [“Urban Agriculture: Feeding Them Where You Find Them“], some of the largest chapters of agricultural groups like the Future Farmers of America are found in cities. The STEM Food & Ag Council report tries to encourage more Millennials to get involved by profiling five young professionals in the food and agriculture industries. One of those young professionals, Andrew Lauver (@AndrewLauver), a 24-year-old Frank Ross International Emerging Leader at DuPont Pioneer, stated, “Agriculture is increasingly global and information-based, which is as exciting at the farm gate as it is in international agribusiness. There are so many opportunities for people my age to make a real impact and travel the world as a part of the solution to global hunger and poverty.”

 

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) undoubtedly agrees with the STEM Food & Ag Council’s goal of getting more young people involved in agriculture STEM subjects. The IFT recently released a list of “8 Great Scientific Solutions to Feeding the World.” They are:

1. Watch an interactive video infographic on food waste
2. Learn about food security in Africa
3. Read this article on M.S. Swaminathan on sustainable agriculture
4. Listen to National Geographic Oceanographer Sylvia Earle share aquaculture solutions
5. Learn how reinvestment in Africa creates a sustainable business model for the future
6. Gain insights on the latest insights on meat alternatives
7. Read an interview on creating greater abundance of crops to feed a booming population
8. Learn about the important role of women in combating world hunger

In what should be considered a promising sign, “Three tenth-grade girls from Ireland used natural bacteria to spur growth in cereal crops like wheat and barley. Their research won first prize at the annual Google Science Fair and the teens hope their method could aid agricultural production in other parts of the world.” [“How three teens used bacteria to tackle global food poverty,” by Claire Felter (@claireefelter), The Christian Science Monitor, 7 October 2014] If asked, I’m sure the three teenagers from Cork, Ciara Judge (@CiaraFudgyJudgy), Emer Hickey, and Sophie Healy-Thow (@SophieHealyThow), would tell you that their research was not only exciting but satisfying. We need to expose more young people to the opportunities that a STEM-based career in agriculture offers. Millennials, should forget the image of farmers portrayed in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting and start thinking about people working with the latest technologies. There are opportunities to be found and global food security needs you.