Food for Thought: The Link Between MSIs and Agriculture

Brittini R Brown

Brittini R. Brown

Hello, my name is Brittini Brown and I am an African-American woman who has a passion for changing the lives of people through agriculture. Before you shift your eyes away, yes, you are reading MSIs Unplugged. No, this article has not been published on the wrong blog. Yes, in just a few short sentences, you’ve already learned that there is in fact an intersection between Minority Serving Institutions and agriculture. So, what is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated concepts?

In 2050, experts project that the global population will reach an estimated 9.6 billion people. The U.S. population will rise to approximately 438 million, where over half will be minorities. While some may be concerned with where these people will live and work, I’m most concerned with what food they will eat, how it will be produced, and most importantly, who will provide the knowledge required to produce it. If we are to increase the production required to feed this population, not only must our universities graduate more animal scientists, horticulturalists, plant scientists, agricultural engineers, food scientists, and the like, but—guess what—they must also be graduates of color. In order to produce enough food to feed our growing population, U.S. workforce needs cannot be met without graduating students of color because non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the next 20 years.

Oh yeah, and just in case you haven’t realized it yet, these are STEM disciplines. Unfortunately, agriculture is often overlooked in STEM discussions. However, if you enjoy eating the way I do, I think it’s pretty important that agriculture become a part the conversation.

Though a number of university- and government-sponsored programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate, and the Southern Regional Education Board Doctoral Scholars Program have made gains in increasing the presence of underrepresented minorities in STEM, there is still work to be done. In fact, the White House reports an estimated need for 1 million STEM graduates in the next decade. Yet, compared to their proportions in the U.S. population, Hispanics, African-Americans, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives are underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. Further, in 2012, whites earned 68.5% of science and engineering doctoral degrees while minorities earned a combined 20.9%. But, just in case I wasn’t clear before, many of our future graduates will need to be students of color because without them we simply cannot meet our growing workforce needs.

A 2009 report by the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities suggests that higher education must refocus its efforts on training the next generation of scientists and engineers. Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I also believe one of the greatest opportunities to increase the number of minority students pursuing and obtaining graduate degrees in STEM is through partnerships between 1890 and 1862 Land-Grant Universities (LGUs). Their capacity to produce highly capable STEM baccalaureate graduates of color and conduct STEM-intensive research is unmatched. Historically Black LGUs, like North Carolina A&T State University and Florida A&M University, enroll 29% of all African-American students enrolled in LGUs. Predominantly White LGUs, such as Purdue University and Iowa State University, not only have the financial capacity to fund underrepresented minority students pursuing STEM graduate degrees but also the research capacity to produce the agricultural scientists needed to meet our food production needs.

So, what is the connection between MSIs and agriculture? It’s quite simple. In order to feed the growing U.S. and global population, it is imperative that Land-Grant Universities engage in partnerships to produce the graduates of color needed for the STEM workforce. Maybe then, the concept of an African-American woman who has a passion for changing the world through agriculture won’t be the exception, but rather the rule.

Brittini R. Brown is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. She currently serves as the Coordinator of Strategic Planning, Partnership, and Development for Mentoring@Purdue, an initiative aimed at enhancing mentoring relationships between faculty, and women and underrepresented minority students pursuing STEM-based agricultural and life science graduate degrees in the Purdue University, College of Agriculture.