Please stay tuned… there are more coming!
Please stay tuned… there are more coming!
Britt is a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University where he specializes in soil physics and sustainable agriculture. Britt also works to promote community gardens and STEM education in communities of color.
This year, with all of its tribulations, has forced our society to look into the mirror and to see ourselves as we are; the good, the bad, the ugly. Discourses on race and the enduring legacy of racism, long topics of discomfort in many professional circles, are beginning to take hold across our nation. As our society begins to more thoughtfully reckon with racial injustices writ large, our profession can, in word and deed, model the moral courage to not only actively support equity and inclusion, but to also reject passive acquiescence to an inequitable norm.
My belief in the inalienable human right of unencumbered access to wholesome food and clean water has defined my journey as a scientist. As a Black man raised in the city, my experiences have indelibly shaped my identity as an agronomist. I know first-hand the disproportionately long shadow that an inequitable food system casts on communities of color. I have also witnessed first-hand the dearth of opportunities for young people of color to engage in the agricultural sciences; an opportunity gap that shamefully persists in most places. Examining our collective role in preserving an inequitable norm must include a critical examination of racial homogeneity in the agricultural sciences. A substantive transition towards inclusion must include thoughtful engagement with communities that have too long been overlooked. A society where People of Color are full and equal partners in the food system, from farm to fork, is a goal that our profession should aspire to.
As an agronomist, I have the responsibility to conduct scientific research that advances a more sustainable and equitable food system. My other, perhaps more important responsibility is to serve as an educator, mentor, and role model to People of Color. As scientists and citizens, we have a moral responsibility to not only speak out against inequity, but to also actively dismantle the structures that foster de facto segregation at the institutions that we serve. Words of solidarity and pledges of financial support are not in themselves sufficient to achieve this aim. Of course words and finances matter; however, words without deeds are hollow, and money alone cannot substitute for investments of our time, expertise, and commitment to equity.
There are of course notable efforts devoted towards recruitment of People of Color into the university; however, these efforts alone are inadequate to foster racial equity in our profession. Tertiary education is far too late to begin the process of meaningful engagement with communities of color. Investments in recruitment, training, and retention of People of Color in the agricultural sciences can start as early as elementary school. These investments could include, for example, using our expertise to teach botany and gardening at summer camps, or hosting farm and laboratory field trips at our academic institutions. Transitioning towards greater inclusion is possible; however, we must possess the willingness and creativity to actualize this change. Structural change cannot happen in the absence of direct, thoughtful engagement to address the needs and concerns of marginalized communities. As scientists and citizens, we can make meaningful and lasting efforts to dismantle the racial inequities that manifest in our profession. Our efforts must go beyond niceties, platitudes, and one-time cash donations; if we truly want to serve as instruments of change then we must begin investing in marginalized communities of color: we must invest our time, our expertise, and our steadfast commitment to equity and opportunity for all.
Benjamin Bishop is a graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri studying agroforestry systems and tree crops. He has had a lifelong fascination with fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and is currently working with black walnut (Juglans nigra) at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin Missouri. Through his research, he hopes to expand the utilization of trees and woody shrubs as both profitable crops and as a strategy to off-set greenhouse gas emissions.
This year has brought with it unexpected events that have challenged us and highlighted deeply-rooted issues facing almost every facet of society. Between record-breaking temperatures, massive protests and a pandemic, Americans are learning that life may not return to business as usual. As an eternal optimist, I can’t help but believe that we will use this unique inflection point in human history to enact change long overdue. Thanks to the constant digital connectedness enjoyed today, we can share ideas and make informed decisions faster than ever. So, while the task at hand can seem insurmountable at times, I am constantly inspired by the people innovating solutions that are having real impact.
Several years ago I became interested in pursuing research. Seeing that agriculture is foundational to economic, social and environmental issues, it seemed like an appropriate area to channel my deep interest in food plants and regenerative design. At this point, I had experience with agriculture on an urban and community scale. However, I wanted to learn how commercial agricultural operations could be improved to be less harmful to the environment, and possibly even beneficial. As I travelled to study farms that were actually building soil, improving biodiversity and feeding their communities while making a profit, I began to realize that the idea wasn’t just a 1960’s pipedream. This could actually scale. Soon after, I began to see the connection between regenerative agricultural practices and climate change mitigation through the process of carbon sequestration. A particularly grim IPCC climate report was the spark that I needed to dedicate my life to the implementation of solutions that address concerns of conventional agriculture.
Agroforestry, the integration of trees on cropland or with livestock, is a set of practices that has tremendous potential as one of these solutions. My current research at the University of Missouri involves the genetic improvement of tree crops such as black walnut so that they may be more widely planted across the midwestern United States as a profitable crop for farmers. If implemented properly, agroforestry can make land more productive than if it were planted to monocrop or livestock alone. Moreover, this shift will be beneficial for farmers by diversifying their income streams with the addition of tree crops and timber sales once the trees reach maturity. By perennializing the agricultural landscape with tree crops, perennial vegetables/fruits and even perennial grains that are currently under development, I hope to see a more resilient and regenerative way of farming in my lifetime.
Regenerative methods of farming, however, will not be adopted readily without a cultural shift in the way farms are managed and a resurgence of young people from all backgrounds wanting to begin careers as farmers. Since agroforestry operations tend to have different business models than conventional farms, they are less likely to compete directly, allowing new entrants into the industry that would otherwise be barred. I think this is a crucial point that will create more equitable access to land and spur local economies throughout the region. In these beginning stages, I hope there will be more Extension support and monetary incentivization of regenerative farming practices until communities begin to establish and become self-sufficient. Demonstration farms and public outreach may also improve awareness and acceptance.
We are living in unprecedented times and I would assert that there has never been a more uncertain future. I hope we can use this rare opportunity to shape the future to a more just and resilient one through the decisions made in the present. By focusing on agriculture, we can address economic, social and environmental issues in tandem while continuing to provide for a nation in need now more than ever.