World hunger has been a topic of discussion over family dinner tables across America for decades.
It goes something like this: "Eat. There are starving children in China."
Actually, most Chinese families aren't starving now — their ability to buy food is driving up your grocery bill — but there are plenty of hungry kids across the globe, and the number is expected to rise with the population.
And it will take more than mailing table scraps to feed everyone.
Agricultural production will have to spike by some 70 percent if the world's population hits 9 billion by 2050 as expected.
That's why the University of Missouri's land-grant mission is as relevant now as it was 150 years ago, when Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill pitched his plan to make American colleges more practical and accessible to a society being built on farming and industry.
Today, MU remains on the forefront of future food production, and Chancellor Brady Deaton is at the head of the table.
Last year, President Barack Obama appointed Deaton chairman of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development.
In the position, it's Deaton's job to help come up with policies that will make it easier to meet growing demands.
It's appropriate, then, that MU will showcase food as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act next week in Washington, D.C. MU is one of two dozen universities participating in the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival on the National Mall. For two weeks, the land-grant universities will highlight the ways campuses connect with communities.
MU booths will showcase seasonal fruits and vegetables and will teach younger attendees where their favorite foods originate, be it from a hog or a wheat field.
The focus on food not only highlights MU's emphasis on feeding the future; it also gives a nod to the historical significance of the congressional act that put agriculture into an academic spotlight.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law July 2, 1862.
The legislation that gave rise to land-grant universities shifted the higher education landscape in a young America.
Public colleges existed then but were mostly focused on classical studies available to wealthier citizens.
Morrill wanted colleges to add agricultural and mechanical studies and to make those programs accessible and practical for a wider audience.
Through the act, states were granted land to sell to raise money for agricultural and mechanical schools. Missouri received 330,000 acres.
It would take another eight years for Missouri lawmakers, mostly Republicans, to agree to attach the new agricultural college to the existing MU campus in Columbia.
William Switzler, in his "History of Boone County," blamed the political struggle on "unreasonable and inveterate prejudice" among Republicans who wanted to use the funding for other purposes.
He credited state Sen. James Rollins and then-MU President Daniel Read for persistent efforts to bring the school to Columbia.
The Morrill Act of 1862 would have been a signature achievement for any Congress, but it's especially notable because the 37th Congress also was dealing with the Civil War and approving the largest direct tax ever on Americans, as well as going into debt, to pay for it.
Agriculture in general proved to be a priority. The same group of lawmakers also passed the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of public land to anyone willing to farm it, and created the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Later federal laws would expand the mission of land-grant universities. In 1887, the Hatch Act authorized payments of federal grant money to establish agricultural experiment stations at land-grant schools.
A second Morrill Act was approved in 1890, in part to help institutions that served black students. Lincoln University in Jefferson City became a land-grant college at that time.
Although closely related, MU Extension won't celebrate its milestone anniversary until 2014.
That will mark the 100th birthday of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension Service and allowed MU to extend research findings to people across the state.
Today, research, especially in agriculture, not only crosses state borders but also international boundaries.
It's fitting that Deaton is at the helm of MU as the university celebrates the anniversary of the land-grant act. Raised on a farm in rural Kentucky, he has a long history of studying agricultural practices and economics.
Deaton served in the Peace Corps in Thailand and has worked in developing countries to help improve farming techniques and increase production.
As chairman of BIFAD, Deaton leads the board in discussions about policies that can solve some of the problems surrounding global hunger.
He outlined some of those issues during an hourlong conversation with the Tribune about his BIFAD position last year.
There are political, cultural and natural barriers. Foreign aid is often used as war strategy instead of good will.
In some areas, new agricultural practices are taught to men even though women are the ones actually working in the fields and gardens.
Some countries refuse to accept genetically modified crops — which means the majority of sugar beets, corn and soybeans produced in America cannot get to the people who would benefit from them.
And Asia's growing wealth complicates the food picture: Now that more people there can afford meat, the demands are rising and causing instability in the market.
MU researchers are tackling some of the problems at the university's research farms and agriculture experiment stations.
At the Bradford Research and Extension Center, for instance, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources faculty are using drought simulators to test plants and determine characteristics that might make them more resistant to the droughts that plague some parts of the world.
At MU's Beef Research and Teaching Farm south of Columbia, researchers are studying how DNA sequences might affect a calf's ability to gain weight eating a minimal amount of feed.
The multimillion-dollar project ultimately aims to boost beef production to meet international demands.
Other CAFNR researchers have figured out cheaper ways to fatten up turkeys, developed a soy chicken product and created healthier ice cream.
And the emphasis on food has crept beyond the agriculture school.
"The fact is, food is really a strength of Missouri's," said Jo Britt-Rankin, associate dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences.
"Whether it's in English looking at food literature throughout history or through composting or developing drought-resistant crops, we have a unique collection of research."
MOMENT TO MARKET
Britt-Rankin is the facilitator of the Food for the Future Initiative, part of Mizzou Advantage. The goal is to more closely align research and studies from departments across campus.
At the Smithsonian festival, she and other MU representatives will show visitors how Missouri advances agriculture, nutrition and health.
Armed with the motto "Live Like Your Life Depends on It," nutrition specialists from MU Extension work with more than 350,000 Missourians a year promoting healthy eating habits.
The youth program 4-H, also a university-run activity, provides similar food messages to children across the state.
The latter program is so popular on its own, sometimes Missourians don't realize it is part of MU's land-grant mission.
"We've tried hard in the past five to 10 years to ensure that we've branded ourselves and 4-H with the university, but I think there is a disconnect," Britt-Rankin said.
"You say, 'Do you know about 4-H?' and people will say yes, but when you ask whether they know it's part of MU, they don't. Still, 150 years later, there's a marketing component we need to do."
She hopes the estimated 1 million visitors at the Smithsonian festival leave with a better understanding.
"It's great exposure for the university," she said.
Organizers hope to display the exhibits again on campus, possibly during Homecoming festivities in the fall to make sure Missourians also realize the scope of the land-grant mission.
"I would say many people don't understand what a land-grant university is," Britt-Rankin said.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, the Morrill Act was signed so we could take research being done in a large institution and we could translate that and bring that into educational programming for anybody in the state.
We still do that today."
That knowledge has the potential for wider application.
"We know so much," Deaton said. "We can feed the world if we put it together in the right way."
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.