Addressing Our Food Future

Kate VandenBosch, dean of UW–Madison CALS

Kate VandenBosch, dean of UW–Madison CALS

In December, I was invited to attend a meeting hosted by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy focused on “Raising the Profile of Agriculture.” Leaders from across industry, education and government gathered to consider the increased demand for food as earth’s changing climate exacerbates constraints imposed by soil loss, pest and pathogen damage, and land and water availability. These are big issues that tax the imagination. It is one thing to say the oft-repeated phrase “feeding nine billion people,” but it is another to fully comprehend the many hurdles related to that challenge.

The leaders I spoke with in Washington agreed that meeting this challenge will require creative, environmentally mindful solutions and new agricultural technologies. It is clear that our ability to develop these innovations relies on agricultural research and education and also our ability to recruit science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates into the agricultural workforce.

Pair this with results of a recent public opinion survey conducted by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele in the Department of Life Sciences Communication that showed Wisconsin residents discuss food and related topics with others more frequently than they discuss public affairs or science topics, and we have an enormous opportunity. If we can leverage public interest in our food future to strengthen emerging collaborations between industry, government agencies and universities, we can develop novel solutions necessary to meet these demands.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison, and our college in particular, are perfectly suited to advance this issue. I am proud to report that a number of UW–Madison colleagues also participated in the White House meeting—Bill Tracy, professor and chair of agronomy, Julie Dawson, assistant professor of horticulture, Ben Miller, director of federal relations, and Heidi Zoerb, associate dean for external relations in CALS. Our alumni also hold significant positions of influence throughout industry and government, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

This year, thanks to the generosity of donors to the college’s annual fund, we are expanding efforts to interest pre-college students in agriculture-related studies and launching a three-course series for undergraduates on food systems. These are only two of many ways we are working to address these important issues.

The challenges are daunting, but the opportunities are significant. I am excited to see the solutions our students, faculty, staff and graduates develop to meet these demands.