By Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Among the most ominous threats the world faces today is the possibility that we won’t be able to feed the 9 billion people who are projected to be living on Earth by mid-century. Feeding that many people in a way that is sustainable into the far future is a huge task. It means producing more food than has been produced in all of human history and doing that every year thereafter. Leaders in the G 8 and G 20 have called on agricultural experts from around the world to rise to this challenge, and we at USDA, like our global colleagues, are working on solutions to achieve sustainable intensification of our arable land. The resource we need more than any other to ensure such work continues is a well-trained generation of young people engaged in agriculture.
I hear from leaders in both the public and private sectors that there are good jobs waiting for community college and university graduates with the right education in food, natural resources and agricultural sciences. After all, from “farm to table,” this industry is among the largest in the United States.
In the United States, 4-H, USDA’s premier youth develop organization, is a mainstay of agricultural experience and education. Science is the beneficiary of this program, and young people who get involved in 4-H are more likely to study science and math, and pursue a career in science, engineering, or computer technology. Girls in 4-H are twice as likely to pursue science careers as their peers.
USDA offers other opportunities for students to participate in agricultural sciences. Our Agricultural Research Service (ARS) labs provide intern research opportunities and field experience to undergrad, graduate and post-doctoral students. Many young scientists come from other countries, attracted by the chance to conduct research of mutual interest and benefit. It also gives them unique opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge, or in some cases, to impart new skills and knowledge to ARS researchers.
The Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program helps developing countries strengthen agricultural practices by providing scientific training and collaborative research opportunities to visiting researchers, policymakers, and university faculty.
Whether young people are here at home, or from other countries around the world, we need the next generation of scientists trained and ready to take the mantle of research from scientists who have achieved so much to feed the world today. In our recovering economy, food and agricultural sciences are areas where good-paying jobs await them. A starting salary for a young scientist in the United States is roughly $50,000 a year, and they can earn much more as their careers progress.
I am proud to have had a long career in food and agricultural science. It has been an exciting and very rewarding way to use my education and skills. Every day brings new challenges and offers opportunities I never imagined. Now, I hope to spread that enthusiasm to the next generation of young scientists, a group I hope that comes from a diverse range of backgrounds, countries and traditions. If we are to overcome the challenge of feeding our planet’s burgeoning population, there’s not a moment to lose on this mission. We must support science education, agricultural statistics and economics and the students who pursue these fields as a crucial investment in our future. The world is counting on us and we can’t fail them.