As a practical matter of concern to every person, rich or poor, the entire world is at risk due to the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources associated with the expansion of the agricultural frontier by impoverished rural populations concerned with survival. At least 600 million people survive on an income of less than one dollar per day, leaving them in a perpetual state of hunger.
In contrast, American consumers enjoy abundant, low cost food. However, this is due, in part, to policies that generate subsidies to agricultural production in the United States that encourage excessive production, deplete our soils and pollute our water resources and also place resource poor farmers in low-income countries at a competitive disadvantage. Plant and animal disease epidemics are a looming threat to the sustainability of the world's food supply. Currently, a potent race of wheat stem rust is moving through Iran from its origin in Kenya/Uganda, poised to leap into the vast wheat-growing region of Central Asia. If unchecked there, it is near certainty it will reach North America. The food supply of Eastern Europe relies primarily on potatoes, and is now under threat by new races of potato late blight, which trace their origins to central Mexico.
Without a doubt, we know that the solution to the developing world's hunger and poverty problem is a sustained, long-term effort to increase production on small-holder farms. In the history of the world, no nation has prospered without first improving agricultural productivity. A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs cites a number of statistics that demonstrate the impact of investments in agricultural development: (1) every 1% increase in per capita agricultural output tends to lead to a 1.6% increase in the incomes of the poorest 20% of the population; (2) if total investments in agricultural research and development in Sub-Saharan Africa were increased to $2.9 billion annually by the year 2013, the number of poor people living on less than $1 per day in the region would decline by an additional 144 million by 2020; (3) if annual agricultural research and development investments in South Asia were increased to $3.1 billion by 2013, a total of 125 million more citizens in the region would escape poverty by 2020, and the poverty ratio in the region would decrease from 35% to 26%.
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has an obligation and a comparative advantage to contribute to the increased productivity of developing-country, small-holder farms. One of the greatest risks in the world today is that science and technology will bypass poor people, to the ultimate detriment of both rich and poor. Cornell is perhaps the primary institution in the world with an obligation to prevent that from happening.
A matter of urgent domestic concern is that Cornell graduates lack sufficient international knowledge. They are not prepared to compete effectively in a global economy. With the growing interdependence of the world economy and the globalization of agricultural markets, the world has changed radically since the current generation of faculty members was trained. With the biotechnology and information revolutions, agricultural production and marketing technologies are changing the competitive relationships among countries. The fraction of world agricultural production that moves through international markets has doubled in the last 25 years. More of that trade is occurring in processed or value-added form through multinational firms. Over one-third of the output of U.S. agriculture is exported, and these exports are among the largest contributors to the U.S. balance of payments.
The future revenue and employment of the food and farm sectors of the United States will be determined principally by the size and composition of future exports. While U.S. farm exports are large, they meet aggressive competition in many markets. U.S. agriculture, like much of the rest of the American economy, is in the process of repositioning itself for the new competitive environment. The adequacy of the training of those who will staff the future food, agricultural and natural resource industries will have a major impact on the transformation of this key American industry and in determining its future competitiveness. This requires that Cornell maintain its capacity to work in and understand agriculture throughout the world.
Meeting the Challenges
The sustainability of agriculture and natural resources is vital for the future of New York, the nation, and the world. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is at the center of Cornell's capacity to address that issue domestically and internationally, with special capabilities in natural resource management, soil science, hydrology, plant breeding, biotechnology, applied economics and management and other relevant capacities. Reducing hunger abroad, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, must be the focus. In these regions, population, agriculture and the environment form a neglected nexus that threatens the entire world.
Cornell stands as one of the great universities in American and world history and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been a major contributor to that reputation. One of its strengths has been its ability to evolve to satisfy the changing needs of the industries and society that it serves. To prepare the next generation of food, agricultural and natural resource professionals for work in the globally interdependent world they will encounter, their educational experience must embrace more international content. If this occurs, American trained professionals should play a leading role in ensuring that the world's population will be better fed than today at a politically acceptable price without environmental damage and that the United States' food and agricultural sector will continue to be a leading supplier of that demand.