Civic Science and Sustainable AgriculturePosted: December 13, 2011
By Sarah M. Collier, PhD
I recently completed my doctorate in plant breeding and genetics. This is a field of science that revolves around better understanding how plants work at the most basic level, and then applying this understanding to enhancing plants’ suitability for human uses such as agriculture. It is a field well-suited to addressing, through research, some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including food security, environmental health, and the ultimate goal of agricultural systems that are truly sustainable in the long term. The importance of focusing the power of scientific inquiry on issues such as these cannot, in my opinion, be overstated.
However, over the course of my graduate training I have become increasingly aware that all of the well-designed, well-intentioned research in the world will not cause the changes we need to happen as fast as we need them to for the sustainability of global food systems. While science must provide a crucial foundation upon which the discussion for our course forward can be based, scientific research alone cannot alter the world, nor does it provide the only kind of important knowledge that needs to be part of the solution.
Knowledge that comes from balancing different interests and understanding power relationships, and knowledge that grows from traditions and life experience, are also of crucial importance. The efficient sculpting of scientific research into real-world applications and changes thus requires engagement and cooperation between not only scientists, but also between students, farmers, policy-makers, and everyone else in between. Agricultural research will only lead to improvements if it is both relevant to the farmers who would act upon it while also acceptable to consumers. Significant progress in agricultural sustainability depends on well-informed, respectful discourse and collaborative work between the scientific community, the agricultural industry, and the public at large. We must all take note and take action to address this challenge together.
As a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin I am happy to find myself working at the intersection of agricultural and civic sciences. As I strive in my own small way to bring agricultural research into alignment with needs and values of producer and consumer communities, I know that others are doing the same from many different positions around the common challenge of sustainability.
Sarah Collier is a postdoctoral research associate working in agricultural sustainability with the Jahn Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a BSc in Botany from the University of Washington and a PhD in Plant Breeding from Cornell University, where she studied the functional mechanisms of plant disease resistance proteins. Her current focus is on animal agriculture sustainability in Wisconsin, with emphasis on the transition of large-scale research investments into on-farm applications.