One of the things I do at Cornell is to provide guidance and information to prospective students. Sometimes they approach me and confess that they don’t know what to do in their academic and professional lives. When this happens, I understand. I felt like that once.
I ask them to imagine a subject that needs every type of natural science – and political science, economics, philosophy and communications. And let’s not forget about IT and technology. I point out that it’s a discipline that has a 95 percent employment rate for new graduates. The professional options and opportunities are endless, I tell them. Usually these points get their attention, so I explain that the subject is agricultural sciences, and that nothing else has agriculture’s impact on the planet and on people.
The ancient endeavor of agriculture is connected with 21st century technology. These are exciting times.
Dr. Antonio DiTommaso is a professor of Crop and Soil Science in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York, USA). An expert in weed science, DiTommaso joined the Cornell faculty in 1999. He has been the Director of Cornell’s Agricultural Sciences major since 2006. In 2011, DiTommaso’s Directorship was endowed by the late Trustee Emeritus Richard C. Call and his wife, Marie. In addition to teaching, DiTommaso maintains an active weed ecology and management research program. The recipient of multiple awards, he has served as editor of multiple research journals including “Invasive Plant Science and Management” (since 2015).
Obviously, I’m an agricultural evangelist. I believe in this field of study and all of its facets. If these students care to ask, I could tell them about my research. I could talk about the great minds I’ve gotten to work alongside. These things might impress them. But I could also tell them a story about how I ended up doing what I do.
In Southern Italy, where I was born, my parents had a dairy farm and several orchards. It was small-scale, a typical multi-purpose farm. When I was nine, we immigrated to Montreal, Canada. We left the Italian countryside to live in a cosmopolitan, international city. My parents worked in the manufacturing sector, and my father also served as a cook on weekends for several wedding reception halls. Our lives changed, of course. At school, the Italian language was replaced by French and English. Our farm and orchards replaced by a small backyard vegetable garden that included a plum tree and a Concord grape plant. We even planted a fig tree in the garden to remind us of the land and plants we had left behind. Of course, the fig plant had to be buried a meter or so below ground each fall to be able to survive the brutal Canadian winters! Still, during this transition, we became, primarily, ‘city people.’
A farming childhood in Italy
But I learned something as a child on our farm, and I was reminded of it during summer breaks, whenever I had the chance to work in my home garden or on small farms outside of the city: My father was a farmer, and farming is science – how to work with the land, the plants, how to manage the weeds. I saw how he worked with the soil, the seedlings and nearby plants to create a certain harmony. With my father, I watched the seedlings break through the earth, and the field become green. But my father never took this for granted. He worked with that land, respecting it, studying it. From the land, he and my mother provided us nourishment. Long after our family became ‘visitors’ to our homeland, our love remained: for Italy, of course, but also for fields that could make seedlings become plants, and then crops. And for the work, the study and the efforts needed to support the land do its magic.
At McGill University, in Canada, where I enrolled as an undergraduate, I wasn’t certain what I wanted to study. But I had biology and botany courses, and as I learned more about plants, I became fascinated. Consider dandelions. In one location, this plant provides biodiversity. It’s even a valued crop. But in another landscape, this plant becomes a weed and the worst thing you can have. Many people in the developed world take for granted that crops rise from the fields. But the work of getting crops to do this, at a scale that can feed people in a sufficient, healthy and economical way – in a way that is sustainable… Well, I learned from an early age: Agriculture is not only natural science, but it is the science of keeping all of us alive and well. And what a science it is.
Agriculture is biology. It’s also crop science, soil science, botany, ecology, animal science, and philosophy. Public administration. Political science. Economics. And that doesn’t even cover it. Agriculture also needs people who are engineers, chemists, physicists, public policy makers, technology wizards and communications experts.
Commitment to a greater cause
At Cornell, we have around 100 students majoring in agricultural sciences. Around half of them come from families with an agricultural background, but the other half does not. What these students have in common is a real passion for this subject, maybe more than ever.
These students have a variety of perspectives. They are well-aware of population and environmental issues, and that we will need to feed about ten billion people by 2050. They want to find approaches and methods to feed people in a sustainable way. They look to integrate ideals with practical actions, backed by science and research. They ask tough questions – as they should. They debate and discuss issues based on science.
Creating the solutions
We have significant challenges to overcome in the field of agriculture, like pesticide resistance and a changing climate. We get our students into the fields as well as the labs and the seminar rooms to better understand these often complex situations so they are best prepared to meet the challenges that we face. Our students work with technology and computer science. The ancient endeavor of agriculture is connected with 21st century technology. These are exciting times.
Let’s say one of these prospective agricultural students is still standing there, wondering what to do in life. I might ask this young person, “How will we feed ten billion people by 2050?” If the student isn’t aware of this statistic, it might sound daunting, even frightening. But here’s what I would say: That great minds are working toward solutions, already. That there are hybrid models of food production that balance the needs of the environment with the practical reality of feeding people. And that we’re working on new models, and new methods, every day.
But most of all, I would tell that student that there’s room to join us in finding solutions. This might seem a little altruistic or utopian – but commitment to a cause drives change. I know from experience: Commitment to agriculture means we can find solutions and lead a meaningful life.