AGRICULTURE has long been a foundational component of Oklahoma's economy. The state usually ranks among the top five for beef production and in the top 10 for hog production. Likewise, we're typically among the top five states for winter wheat, pecan, and grain-sorghum production. Out of 44 million acres of land in Oklahoma, an estimated 35 million are farmland.
Yet despite those numbers, public understanding of food production is on the decline, due in part to agriculture's increasing efficiency. A century ago, nearly 40 percent of U.S. citizens were involved in agriculture. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent.
This change has left many citizens, particularly children, oblivious to the realities of agriculture. Bill Buckner, president of the Ardmore-based Noble Foundation, says the organization's research suggests many youth today are truly unmoored from the facts of life when it comes to food production.
“In the Noble Foundation's own interactions with students, we've learned that some did not know that hamburger meat comes from cattle,” he writes in the latest issue of Legacy, the foundation's magazine. Likewise, he notes a student recently visiting one of the foundation's horticulture plots was surprised to learn strawberries came from a plant.
That lack of knowledge could have major repercussions down the road if outside special-interest groups are able to sway those future voters to enact policies impeding food production. Buckner warns that “future decision-makers — today's youth — could inadvertently reduce this nation's capacity to produce for the world through poor policymaking, overregulation and a lack of commitment to research.”
Nationally, “green” activists are already promoting regulations based on the idea that agricultural practices are environmentally harmful, while animal rights groups often portray agricultural producers as mistreating livestock.
Several resulting initiatives and regulatory proposals have grabbed the attention of farmers and ranchers in recent years, such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency's overreaching dust-regulation proposal and a California regulation targeting poultry involved in egg production. These have prompted pre-emptive measures in some states, such as Oklahoma's “right to hunt” constitutional amendment and a “right to farm” measure in North Dakota.
To ensure future voters have a broader base of knowledge that prevents policy decisions from being based on emotional media appeals rather than facts, the Noble Foundation has launched the Noble Academy to help students understand the importance of agriculture and the need for agriculture research. Academy officials are working with Oklahoma teachers and education experts to provide lessons and in-class demonstrations that allow children to learn about science and agriculture.
The project is similar to programs offered by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. Funded by contributions from state energy producers, the OERB spends millions annually on curricula and programs that help students learn more about the energy industry while also becoming proficient in science, math, social studies and language arts.
With the global population expected to increase from 7 billion to 9.5 billion in coming years, producers will be challenged to provide 70 percent to 100 percent more food. In a world where food demand is only going to increase, it's crucial that citizens understand the need for agriculture industries and make sensible policy decisions that don't unduly impede access to food supply.
For advancing that cause, Oklahomans can thank the Noble Foundation.