This year marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. system of land-grant colleges and universities. It’s an opportune time, especially in light of government budget woes, to take stock of the benefits land-grant institutions have produced over the years — and to step up our investments in their potential to help lead America into a new era of scientific discovery and economic progress.
Composed of more than 100 educational institutions across the country, the land-grant network has long driven America’s successes in practical science, engineering and agriculture. Over the years, the knowledge these colleges and universities have generated has played a major role in securing our position as a world leader in research and technology.
Key to their influence has been a distinctive approach — blending classroom instruction, research and extension — that enables them to collect valuable information and deliver essential skills and groundbreaking technologies to farms, factories and laboratories at home and around the world.
Residents of our farm states know the importance of their contributions to the development of the U.S. agricultural industry, which today is one of America’s largest employers. More than 2 million farmers and about 19 million people in allied industries generate a $1.8 billion foreign trade surplus.
Land-grant institutions apply agricultural and scientific expertise to better the lives of Americans in many ways.
During the past century, agricultural research programs at Kansas State University have been instrumental in the development of dozens of new wheat varieties that have improved the crop’s resistance to poor weather and pests and enabled farmers to vastly increase yields; today the United States is the world’s No. 1 wheat exporter.
A consortium of land-grant institutions led by scientists at Purdue University is working with support from the National Institutes of Health to identify plant genes that can lead to new and more effective drugs. Agricultural researchers at Michigan State University are working with the Department of Defense to develop a portable, self-sustaining wastewater treatment system for the military. This new technology may also help improve municipal wastewater systems in the future.
And the influence of land-grant institutions extends well beyond our borders to address major food security and environmental challenges around the world.
Today, much of the work undertaken at land-grant institutions is helping farmers in poor countries battle pests and bad weather, take advantage of new markets for bio-fuels and cope with the effects of climate change. These efforts stretch back to the 1960s, when they helped many of the newly free nations of Africa increase food security by educating their agricultural scientists and helping them build their own centers of learning.
Land-grant schools continue to collaborate with institutions in many developing countries. Under a U.S. Agency for International Development program, a Mississippi State University food scientist is bringing important know-how to the food-canning industry in Malawi, helping local producers increase the quality and marketability of their products. Important work at the University of California, Davis, has helped develop an insurance program for livestock herders in Kenya that bolsters food security in that country, while another program is developing ways to strengthen agricultural extension in Afghanistan and help stabilize the country’s agriculture-based economy.
But while our nation’s land-grant institutions have helped address many historical and modern agricultural and scientific challenges, the land-grant system itself faces enormous challenges.
Federal funding, which is essential to keeping agricultural research programs on the cutting edge, has been flat for many years and in this difficult economy is constantly under threat of drastic cutbacks. Meanwhile, hard-pressed state governments are cutting education funding, leading some state universities to close or sharply reduce their agriculture schools or departments.
In some cases the private sector has stepped in to fill the funding gap; while these investments can stimulate valuable activities, they cannot be relied on to help the land-grant institutions continue their legacy of basic scientific research.
Such cutbacks in capability could not come at a worse time. Amid intensifying global economic competition, environmental challenges and concerns about the food supply, the scientific research and other activities of the land-grant colleges and universities are needed now more than ever.
The investments our country has made in land-grant institutions over the past 150 years have paid huge dividends many times over. They have kept our nation at the forefront of scientific discovery, laid the foundation for our industrial might, assured safe and plentiful food for generations of Americans and helped propel the global fight against hunger.
With a track record like this, and so many critical challenges before us, now is the time to reinvigorate our support for America’s land-grant colleges and universities. They have served the country and the world well for the past 150 years. Let’s give them the capacity to lead for the next 150.
Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin is a visiting professor and executive-in-residence at Kansas State University. Mark E. Keenum is president of Mississippi State University. He formerly served as undersecretary of Agriculture and as a senior aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). Carlin and Keenum are members of the advisory group for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Agricultural Development Initiative.