Can agriculture save humanity?


Ninety years ago this week, the entire front page of Farm and Dairy was devoted to an address by Herbert Hoover, then U.S. food administrator. Hoover spoke at the National Milk and Dairy Farm Exposition in New York City May 23, 1918.

The eye-catching headline? “Will the dairy cow save humanity?”

“The human race through scores and thousands of years has developed total dependency upon cattle for rearing its young. No greater catastrophe can happen to a people than the loss of its dairy herds, for the total loss of dairy produce means the ultimate extinction of a people.”

First World War

Consider the times. In 1918, World War I continued its ravages, creating widespread food shortages for millions of Europeans.

“It is worse than folly,” Hoover proclaimed, “to put 5 million of our boys into France if the civilian population of our allies are not also to be maintained in strength and morale with our food.”

The speech consumes nearly three full pages of that week’s Farm and Dairy. Hoover exhorts the dairy industry to do its part in securing world peace: “… should the impact of war so dislocate the industry as to cause temporary periods when loss faces you, it is the duty of every dairyman to stand by with the courage that comes from the knowledge that he is a part of the world’s reserve army that may at any moment be called into battle for our existence and the existence of the next generation.”

Today’s world

It is a grand speech, one I copied and tucked away in a file for many years. But a May 20 speech by a DuPont executive made me dig for the old clipping. The 2008 words of James C. Borel to a special U.N. meeting of the Economic and Social Council on the Global Food Crisis echoed Hoover’s cry for an agricultural crusade.

More than 1 billion people worldwide live in absolute poverty. Of the 854 million malnourished people, 96 percent live in the developing world, Borel said.

Hunger, poverty and insecurity are at the core of global instability, he added, then cited a 2008 World Bank report that identified agriculture as the primary driver to abate hunger and reduce poverty.

“… the 1.3 billion farmers around the world are eager to help and are committed to being a part of the solution.”

Need new focus

But short-term solutions, Borel said, can’t repeat the mistakes of the past 20 years, when “agriculture received little policy attention or investment in the most needed areas.”

The world must work to move these individuals past subsistence farming and the ongoing need for food aid, he added.

“Solutions that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable will gradually prime the pump of the rural economy.”

Agriculture, Borel said, must be higher on the agenda in a world of increasing food demands and limited resources.

What’s needed

Farmers everywhere need access to credit, technology, education and markets. Farmers everywhere need production help out in the fields — the latest research information and technologies. Think the land grant Extension service.

Agricultural science can help improve the lives of people worldwide. It has for centuries and needs to be seen as the linchpin of global food security and development.

And for motivation we return to Hoover’s 1918 speech:

“The day may yet come when the child life of the world will be in your hands.”


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