Five Truths Intro: reflections on public agricultural research and education

If you have followed my blogs on systems thinking, you’ll know that I teach a class called Agricultural Systems Thinking, which introduces students to practical tools for trying to understand complex and often controversial problems.  This semester, some of my students have chosen to practice using systems thinking tools to explore the relationship between the public university and multinational agricultural corporations as a class project.

Student interest in this topic was triggered by a financial gift to the university to help support our new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center.  About half the students initially supported the gift and about half opposed. This project will help them understand this particular event within a larger context, which is one of the strengths of systems thinking.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the status of agricultural research and education in the U.S. (which has engaged me, employed me, and treated me well for over 40 years).  This blog introduces “my truths” about the system that was originally created to serve the public good and fails in so many ways.  (I invite you to share your thoughts on how your own truth might be similar or different in the comments box below).

A time for change

I address this topic at a time when my own university is working to restore the public trust and re-energize agricultural research and education – following many years of erosion due to lack of attention and active divestment by administrators.  I’ve written earlier about the “revitalization of the land grant system” at the University of Massachusetts.  As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Land Grant University System established by Abraham Lincoln, many of us will want to celebrate our illustrious past.  I applaud this recognition of the past, while at the same time hope we will examine our current vision and values as we focus on the future.

I believe this “revitalization” represents a long-overdue awakening by public agricultural universities nationwide to the failures of industrial agriculture (which has had many successes as well, of course).  This transformation began in the late 1980’s, when groups of farmers invented what they called “sustainable agriculture.”

The creation of the UMass Center for Agriculture and the recent investment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture represent a significant commitment to agricultural research and education.  I am hopeful but realistic about our chances for real change.  Here is why…..

Lets ask some people I trust about “my truths”

A while back I sent an electronic survey to a group of colleagues who were involved in university research and education in support of long-term agricultural sustainability.  The survey tested the degree of agreement or disagreement with five “truth statements” related to the public university’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

The response to the survey was reassuring (not only because many of the respondents agreed with “my truths”) but also because of the rapid response.  Within a few hours, I had 50 survey responses, and within a few days 73 scientists dedicated to building a research and education system that supports a more sustainable agriculture had participated in the survey.

This blog introduces the “five truths.”  Future blog posts will add further reflections on each, based partially on feedback from survey participants, partially on my own thinking and experience, and partially on lines of poetry from T.S. Eliot.  Some of my friends reminded me that these “five truths” have all been said before.  Well, maybe so.  But Eliot seems to assure me that some things are worth repeating when he writes (2);

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again?

 Well yes… I’m saying it again!

Why bother you may ask?  Why say it again?  Why survey agricultural researchers and educators about what they think?  I mean, who really cares what the sustainable agriculture research and education university community thinks?  We all know that power resides in the hands of corporations and politicians who would largely disagree with the “five truths” anyway.  Right?   An answer comes from Donella Meadows (3), who wrote that the first step in changing deeply rooted paradigms was:

“…you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder…” 

Finding justification for my impulsive inclination to continue to speak my personal truth (louder) by “pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm,”  I decided to share these reflections with you.  I recognize this blog will aggravate some readers.  My intent is to encourage exploration and dialogue, just as my students are attempting to do in a responsible, thoughtful manner.  We’ll see if I succeed….

My Five Truths (for discussion)

Below I’ve simply listed my “five truths” in raw form, without elaboration or interpretation.  Future posts will explore each statement at a bit more depth.  So here we go…..


My Truth Onethe form of agriculture currently practiced in most of the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak biological toxins and soil into the surrounding environment, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers off the land.

My Truth Two the public agricultural research and education (land grant) system created to serve the public good is influenced by the private agenda of multinational  corporations, large agricultural commodity groups, and disciplinary-bound science societies.

My Truth Three: the leadership of the farming community (in the form of well-financed national commodity organizations) and multinational food corporations have too much influence over federal farm policy, often at the expense of consumers, small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

My Truth Four: many of us in agriculture are running ever faster to stay even –  on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term solutions, researchers pursue the next grant, and teachers offer ever bigger classes.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we relate to the earth.

My Truth Five: the quest for sustainability of the planet, including human and non-human communities, may be our best hope for public universities, the farming communities we love, and for ourselves as human beings. 


NOTE: I recognize the danger of making these bold statements without empirical evidence and ask for your patience.  Further elaboration of these statements will follow in future blogs (and are linked to the “my truth” statements above.  For now, I’d appreciate your initial reaction in the comments box below. 



I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

(1) The origin of this blog was an essay titled ‘My Truths Today ‘ It’s Still All About Sustainability’ which was submitted (upon request) to a sustainable agriculture newsletter of a public university in the Midwestern U.S.   Upon receipt, the essay was deemed too controversial to print by the university administration.  It has not been submitted for publication elsewhere but has been shared with friends and colleagues.  The original essay has been slightly modified for this blog.

(2) Four Quartets’ were published in 1943, toward the end of Eliot’s illustrious career.

(3) This quote is from Donella Meadows, published in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute. December 1999.  For more, see the archives at


6 thoughts on “Five Truths Intro: reflections on public agricultural research and education”

  1. Nice, John. Thanks for sending it. It seems so obvious on the face of it that I’m surprised anyone thinks it is controversial. I guess that shows how far from the centers of power I am!
    The only thing I would disagree with is in number 3 I think international food corporations play at least as big a role, if not bigger, in US farm policy as major commodity groups.
    But yes, the answer is going to have to come from the outside. That has always been the case once a bureaucracy gets involved in research. No one dares to come up with original ideas lest getting kicked off the gravy train. Ask any medical researcher. — Jack

    1. Right….. one of the nice things about blogs is they can be updated quickly. Both commodity organizations and global corporations have lobbyists working Washington. Thanks Jack.

  2. Well, John, you know I’m on board with you. I share Jack Kittredge’s surprise and dismay that your truths, which I consider intuitively obvious, should be regarded as “controversial.” Then again, on many levels and throughout history, the speaking of the truth has often been considered controversial. As you know, though, that does not excuse us from our obligation to speak it!

    I would refer you to Mark Winne’s “Closing the Food Gap” for an interesting and insightful read regarding some of these issues. Big Ag ain’t producing recognizable food, and people are eating what can best be described as simulated food-like substances. It’s a calamity that we can have obesity and malnutrition side by side in the same individuals! I am inclined to agree with Winne, and, I think, you, that the solutions to these problems will not come from the top down. They will have to come from the bottom up, and through the work of people like you (and Ryan, and Stephanie, et al.). I’m glad you’re thinking these thoughts, writing these words, and speaking these truths!

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