As part of this year’s Blue Bell Lecture Series, Molly Jahn, professor in the Laboratory of Genetics and Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave Texas A&M University faculty, staff, and students her unique front-line perspective of agriculture and the challenges we face as we manage agricultural systems.
“We were always under the assumption that we were working in an open system,” said Jahn. “The point was to push that system as hard as we could to maximize short-term yield.”
While we have enjoyed tremendous gains in yield over a sustained period of time, the goal isn’t only about maximizing the yield in one dimension of anything, Jahn said. Agriculture is a way to provision ourselves and to care for our planet, she said. The choices we make in our production system have an incredible impact on the condition of our planet and on the condition of our resources today and tomorrow.Therein lies the need for a sustainable agricultural system.
“Getting what I need now without compromising my ability to get it later is the definition of sustainability,” Jahn said.
We need to build a science foundation to better understand the consequences of the choices we make in agriculture, said Jahn. We must integrate food security and sustainable agriculture into everything we do to generate the benefits and manage the negative consequences.
“It is really important what we do in a field, and also on a farm, in a water shed, and in accounting,” said Jahn. “We need to better check our inputs, our outputs, and our outcomes in human and environmental dimensions across the scale.”
We must also create comprehensive, shared, and integrated information systems that recognize both human and environmental dimensions of agriculture, Jahn said.
“Producers want to know how to manage their farms not only for short-term profitability, but for long-term viability,” said Jahn. “All approaches created to assess the sustainability of agriculture depend on the information from the farmer.”
Land grand institutions are stepping into dialogue with those producers. They are seeking to shift agricultural practices towards better long-term balances of resource space and better provisioning of humanity.
However, the biggest challenge of the century in the scientific community is defining a safe operating space across the scale for humanity and the planet. Finding the balance between adequately conditioning humanity and properly using our resources is the key to the sustainability of today and tomorrow, Jahn said.
“We need to start looking into what a safe operating space means to us in the agricultural system,” said Jahn. “We need to ask ourselves what are our means and what does it mean to live within them.”
Cera Southerland, ’13, is an agricultural communications and journalism student. She is chief student leader of IAAS and also serves as an Ambassador and Mentor for Study Abroad.