The director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research spoke earlier this week about challenges facing agriculture producers — and the issues consumers have obtaining accurate information about nutrition and goods — before about 50 members and guests of the Bryan Rotary Club.
Patrick Stover, who is also dean of agriculture and life sciences at AgriLife, said AgriLife is working around the state to help consumers cut through proverbial weeds of misinformation to access the most accurate data about food nutrition.
“On the consumption side, there’s a real problem with public trust,” Stover said. “There is a lot of contradictory information that has come from nutritional science, such that nobody really believes what they hear.” He added that in the absence of good information about nutrition, advocates of particular diets or lifestyles promote their perspective despite a lack of scientific evidence.
Stover cited a number of current initiatives and future developments that AgriLife is leading or involved with, all with the goal of providing accurate information to consumers and producers alike.
“The goal is that we are going to be the place where people can get unbiased information about the food system,” Stover said.
He mentioned the AgriLife-led Institute for Precision Nutrition, Responsive Agriculture and Health, which received Board of Regents approval in January.
A&M AgriLife recently announced a partnership with NutriRECS, a public health and nutrition consortium, he said. Stover has also been traveling across the state as part of the Advancing Texas road show, an initiative bringing conversations about nutrition to producers and other agriculture stakeholders statewide.
“This is a question that is being asked nationally and globally: What should we expect from the food system? It used to be that we expected the food system to create food,” Stover said. That was the whole [Norman] Borlaug revolution. That’s not the case anymore. Now the mandate is that food be used to create health.”
Stover said that the expectations also include a smaller environmental footprint and economic prosperity for producers.
“That’s a huge mandate for agriculture, and it’s what is driving agriculture policy right now,” Stover said.
Stover described the challenges facing many within the agriculture industry “as a national security issue.”
“The problem we face now is that for producers, margins are so thin because we overproduce food that any ripple in the system — a trade war with China, Hurricane Harvey — they’re underwater,” Stover said.
He added that rural Texans may face a decline in political clout as more people move — in some cases from out of state — to Texas’ urban centers.
The average age of a farmer in the United States is about 59, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The average age of a producer was 53.3 in 1992 and 57.1 in 2007. Released by the USDA, the 2017 Census of Agriculture indicated that 27% of producers are categorized as new, with 10 years of experience or less. Farmers 35 or younger make up about 9% of all producers.
Stover said that AgriLife works to support both agriculture producers and consumers of goods.
“We do the research that really brings agriculture forward, in terms of meeting the needs of producers and consumers,” Stover said. “We’ve been focusing mostly on increasing production. We’re in a situation where we can begin to bring producers and consumers together by not only focusing on making more — and we need to make more with a growing population — but making higher quality food that supports human health.”