By SUSAN HAYHURST
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Ask a group of people interested in sustainable agriculture what it actually means and you’ll likely receive myriad answers.
That’s exactly what John Rosene, Ivy Tech Community College – Wabash Valley’s agriculture program chair, intended when he spoke at a recent presentation for the Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability.
“Defining sustainable ag isn’t easy,” said Rosene.
“There isn’t a definition we all agree on. At the presentation, I didn’t want to beat people over the head with one, instead I wanted to present a variety of ideas and then discuss them.”
Rosene’s professional experience uniquely enabled him to address his appointed issues. He launched the Wabash Valley campus’ ag program in 2007, which recently received national recognition.
Rosene’s three degrees in botany, agronomy and science education reflect his interests and carried him through an 18-year career that began with Pfizer Genetics, which changed ownership to DeKalb Genetics then to Monsanto.
He’s a researcher that’s come to know many area farmers.
Prior to joining Ivy Tech, he left the ag industry to pursue a teaching career, including chemistry at Terre Haute North High School, and now crop production classes at Ivy Tech Community College.
Rosene’s presentation included a discussion of some milestones in agriculture history and a look at the sustainability of agriculture during those periods.
“A close examination of history shows problems with sustainability, from climate change to social inequality,” he said.
“The idea that pre-modern agriculture was sustainable is misleading; modern technology has helped promote sustainability.”
The romantic notion of ag appears when the generation twice or three times removed from their grandparent’s farms remembers the old, quaint equipment.
Rosene said that notion begs the question can the “early 20th century version of agriculture be sustainable compared to ag in the early 21st century? In the Neolithic period 100 percent of the people were farmers,” Rosene said.
“Ninety percent were farmers in the Middle Ages and in Colonial America. Thirty percent farmed in 1900. Today, less than two percent are actually farming. Human history shows us climbing up and out of the soil.”
The public’s climb out of their connection to the soil makes for interesting surveys. According to a recent opinion poll of grocery shoppers, the dominant factor in U.S. grocery shopper’s selections is taste, with nutrition ranked fourth. “It’s scary to see nutrition so far down the list when we have such an obesity problem in this country,” noted Rosene. “The U.S. produces the world’s most plentiful and safest food supply and the public relishes its food’s taste.
“We are extremely fortunate to only have to spend 10 percent of our income on food compared to countries like India where 50 percent of income goes to food. We need to choose nutrition over cost and appropriately value the food we eat.”
As for organic food production, Rosene said it has its place.
“Organically grown food is great in this country where there is plentiful food,” he explained. “In countries short on food, the organic food movement wouldn’t fly because it’s too expensive to produce quantity.”
Because the U.S. is known for feeding the world, Rosene shared that farmers are expected to be efficient enough to produce the volume that’s demanded. “Eighty-eight percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified,” he said. “The public didn’t ask for GMOs, the farmers don’t usually make more money planting them, but the productivity demand is the reason we have them. This revolutionary technology is a positive step in sustainability.
“Let’s face it, we’re not going back to the way it was before genetic engineering. We can’t, not when we’re expected to feed the world. GMO crops can increase sustainability by reducing pesticide use, they can potentially reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers, improve water use efficiency, and minimize yield-limiting factors. Such capabilities are a positive step in ag but those who are emotionally tied to sustainable ag don’t want to hear that.”
What Rosene did discover is the participants wanted to talk about their attitudes toward food, how food can be used, and how the public gets so much information about food from advertisers and marketing campaigns. “It was gratifying to see non-ag folks engaged in a discussion of food production,” Rosene said. “That’s what we need – more people involved in this conversation.”