Positioning Cooperative Extension for a Sustained Future
Adapted from My Speech to
Prairie View A & M Extension Awards Banquet

Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
March 30, 2006

Founded in 1876, Prairie View A&M University is the second oldest institution of higher education in Texas. What its Extension Service can do for a sustained future are at least three basic things.

1. Recognize Natural Gas's Role in Agriculture

A friend of mine used to say that, "If you're eating, you're into agriculture." But do we know what the link is between energy and agriculture? Let me explain just how tightly linked they are.

"Two Gulf hurricanes and other factors have kept natural gas futures hovering near all-time highs. But with the accelerating depletion of reserves in North America, the intermittent gas crises we've been seeing since 2001 will start coming thicker and faster, finally merging into an era of permanent scarcity", according to Stan Cox of Alternet.

"A chronic gap between supply and demand would mean plenty of hardship in the United States and Europe, which have come to rely on natural gas not only for heat, but increasingly for electricity generation and manufacturing. But the future looks even grimmer in the global South, where the maintenance of human life itself has come to depend on the steady and reliable supply of natural gas that's needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer for food production.

Turn off the gas, and a lot of American families would have a hard time cooking dinner -- but a lot of families in places like Nepal and Guatemala would have nothing to cook.

Nitrogen and human existence

Crop plants assemble carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen into proteins that are essential both to plant growth and to the diets of humans and other animals. Of those four elements, nitrogen is the one that's too often in short supply. If you see yellowish, stunted crops, whether they're in an Indiana cornfield or an Indonesian rice paddy, it's likely that you can blame it on a lack of nitrogen.

A world of 6.4 billion people, on the way to 9 billion or more, needs more protein than the planet's croplands can generate from biologically provided nitrogen. Our species has become as physically dependent on industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer as it is on soil, sunshine and water. And that means we're hooked on natural gas.

Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba has demonstrated the global food system's startling degree of dependence on nitrogen fertilization. Using simple math -- the kind you can do in your head if there's no calculator handy -- Smil showed that 40 percent of the protein in human bodies, planet-wide, would not exist without the application of synthetic nitrogen to crops during most of the 20th century.

That means that without the use of industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer, about 2.5 billion people out of today's world population of 6.2 billion simply could never have existed.

If farming depended solely on naturally occurring and recycled nitrogen fertility, the planet's cropped acreage could feed only about 50 percent of the human population at today's improved nutrition levels", according to Smil.

Solar energy provides an answer to how we conserve the natural gas from which nitrogen is derived. Around half of the water heaters are using natural gas. Texas has always had more sun that it has oil or natural gas, so why don't we change to the heating of water through solar thermal hot water heaters?

Professor Smil reminds us that, "Nitrogen fertilizer made it possible for us to overpopulate the Earth, and now we're hooked. Someday, as reserves of fossil fuels dwindle, our descendents will come to inhabit a less crowded planet, on crops fed entirely by sunlight and natural fertility. Whether that future population decline happens humanely through planning and restraint or cruelly through catastrophe depends largely on how we manage nonrenewable resources, especially natural gas."

2. Use E-85 Made from Corn, Sorghum & Switchgrass!

Tired of OPEC or terrorists threatening our energy supply? Tired of shipping our wealth to parts of the world that are distant, uncertain and hostile? Tired of dirty air threats to our health or economy? If you have a vehicle that is compatible with the use of E-85 fuel, you can make a difference by spreading the good word about its use and put money in the hands of American and Texas corn farmers. To see if your vehicle qualifies, go to e85fuel.com or call 788-234-1722.

3. Educate, Educate, Educate about Nutrition!

It takes a mere 6% of the population to have an epidemic. In Bexar County, we have a 9% incidence of diabetes. With an approximate $700 million annual budget at our County hospital, the University Health System (UHS), we could save perhaps as much as $50 million annually by prevention of this and other diseases with proper education.

Most of what we see on TV encourages us to eat something unhealthy and to do it regularly. Additionally, drug companies advertise their products for depression and a range of maladies with disclaimers that would stop most people right in their tracks from purchasing the drugs. They disclaim effects of their drug on your heart, stomach and just about every other organ that could react negatively from the drug's usage. Why shouldn't the Extension Service provide proper dietary information in the form of public service announcements as well as through their agents?

These three initiatives will not only sustain the Extension Service, they will make for a fiscally and physically stronger Texas and America!

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