Ag Grads: A Call to Action

By Marshall Matz

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



The following is the Commencement Address delivered by Marshall Matz to the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, CT, on May 5th

It is wonderful to be back on campus in Storrs and a thrill to share this special day with you. 

 

I have devoted my career to your areas of expertise - agriculture, natural resources and nutrition. Before I tell you why an attorney would do such a thing allow me to extend my warm congratulations to you, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Class of 2012. 

You have earned the degree you are receiving and this milestone should not be taken for granted. 

I suspect it is both exciting and a little scary to graduate in 2012. Much has changed since I graduated from Storrs in 1968. The world is as different today, as ….well….as different as Coach Jim Calhoun and Coach Geno Auriemma.*

In 1968, a postage stamp cost 5 cents; tuition at UConn was $95 per semester; and I bought a car for $75 that took me straight through law school. I was able to earn enough in the summer working at US Electrical Motors in Milford to pay for an entire year at UConn.

More to the point however, in 1968 the world's population was 3.5 billion; today it is 7 billion on the way to 9 billion in 2050. Global warming is now a major concern; and obesity is our #1 public health problem.

In short, these changes represent a major challenge for the world but they represent an opportunity for you. 

BioDiesel

As a graduate of this college, you will be on the frontline of the planet's most perplexing problems. The eyes of the world are on your exact areas of expertise: agriculture, natural resources and human nutrition. We are entering an agricultural renaissance and you have the hot hand. You have the skills that are in demand. 

Next week will be an historic week in the world of agriculture. On My 15th, the Department of Agriculture will celebrate its 150th birthday and recognize agriculture's past contribution to America. A few days later, President Obama will convene the G-8 to focus on the world's most critical issues and that will include global food security.

Dr. Raj Shah, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, recently said that the single most effective way to reduce world poverty is to increase agriculture's yields. You can do that; and you must. 

The challenge of feeding the world is the one goal that unites all countries and all of humanity. There are a billion hungry people in the world. It is a barrier to economic development and political stability. 

In the next fifty (50) years the world will have to produce more food than has been produced in the last 10,000 years, combined. 

When Jim Calhoun moved to UConn at his first press conference he was asked if it was really possible to turn UConn into a national basketball power. He gave a simple two- word answer: “it's doable” he said. 

Today's challenge is also doable. Not easy. Not certain. But doable….and it still excites me every single morning. 

Let me give you some examples of why it is so exciting:

  • While traveling recently in the Jordan River Valley of Israel, its agricultural oasis, I noticed a road sign that said “Beware of tractors on road.” The sign was in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The only thing that Israel and its neighbors seem to agree on is cooperation to boost agriculture production. The irrigation systems in Israel dispense water drop by drop. The water is combined with nutrients and the irrigation systems are run by solar power.   Further, 70% of the water used for irrigation has been recycled after human use. Recently, the Prime Minister of Kenya reached out to Israel for technical assistance with drip irrigation.
  • I have seen medical doctors in Kenya forced to become farmers so they could distribute food along with the prescription AIDS drugs. That's right….doctors in white coats in the fields learning how to irrigate and rotate crops because their drugs won't work on an empty stomach and there isn't enough food. 
  • Lastly, throughout Africa I have seen children go to school just to get a free school lunch….particularly the girls. As a result, the girls are getting married later; having fewer children and getting the education they need to have a more fulfilling life. 

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a most extraordinary organization, is seeking to change all this and grow Africa out of poverty. Under the leadership of Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, they are bringing together all of the public and private sector stakeholders. Working across the entire agriculture value chain from seeds to soils, markets and public policy they are changing the face of Africa.  

Back home in the U.S. it is all about calories and the need to eat more efficiently. It comes down to numbers. It is not complicated….even for a lawyer. In 1804, Lewis and Clark and their team of explorers burned off some 6,000 calories a day. Growing up in West Haven….not quite 1804… we would walk back and forth to school twice a day, including the lunch hour. I don't know how many calories we burned off each day, but it was more than children do today when they retreat to the computer instead of the school playground.  

Today, the average American needs only 2,000 calories, depending on your weight and level of physical activity….one of the tradeoffs of modern technology.

The question is - what do we do about it? Now, Washington, D.C. is a very strange place…..as the country seems to know….ten square miles surrounded by reality.

If the policy experts in Washington discover a problem, they look for an enemy and then a quick solution so they can put out a press release. There is no enemy when it comes to obesity, no bad guy unless you want to blame the creators of Facebook or Nintendo.

I will leave the social commentary to others, but from a nutritional point of view, it is a major problem. People will need fewer and fewer calories and will have to budget calories more efficiently in order to avoid becoming obese. 

Again, it is it a challenge for America but an opportunity for you.

When you put all of this together, I come to the conclusion that you are the luckiest folks on campus graduating this weekend. The business school is still important, science is still in demand, and the fine arts will sooth our soul, but agriculture, nutrition and natural resources are the wave of the future. 

Each year Bill Gates publishes an Open Letter. What did Bill Gates focus on in his Open Letter this year? Agriculture! That's right - agriculture. Gates wrote: “….innovation is the key to improving the world. When innovators work on urgent problems and deliver solutions to people in need, the results can be magical.” 

He is talking about you. You are the next generation of innovators in agriculture. You are the magicians.

A new report by the United Nations on Global Sustainability has embraced the concept of “green biotechnology” to feed the planet.   You are the ones who will create the new biotechnology….seeds that require less water, are more resistant to disease and therefore require less fossil fuel. 

The one downside of being so efficient in agriculture production is that farmers have lost touch with their customers. Less than one percent of the U.S. population can feed all of us, and more. It is an amazing story.

The average American consumer spends less than ten percent (10%) of his or her disposable income on food. It is the lowest of any country in the history of the world. For many consumers it is the low cost of food that provides the extra disposable income to buy smart phones, iPads and flat screen TVs. 

In the final analysis, according to the French writer Romain Rolland, there is only one definition of the word “hero”.   “A hero” he said “is a man who does what he can.” Forgiving his chauvinism….he was French after all, and received the Nobel Prize in 1915…..his point is a good one. How many of us do all that we can, all the time?

The future may seem a little overwhelming at this moment, but each of you has the capacity to fundamentally change the world and lead a new, sustainable green revolution. Each of you has the capacity to be a hero. The question for you to answer and only you can answer it, is who among you will be the heroes….. And who will be the observers?

Long after my words have faded from your memory, your years here at UConn will hold you in good stead. Make full use of them. You will have only one shot.

Thank you very much for allowing me share this moment with you.   I wish all of you the best that life has to offer. 

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*Jim Calhoun is the UConn men's basketball coach; Geno Auriemma is the women's basketball coach. 

About the Author: Marshall Matz serves on the Board of the World Food Program-US; the Congressional Hunger Center and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. He is a partner at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. mmatz@ofwlaw.com

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