W2006: Multistate Agricultural Literacy Research

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active


Agriculture impacts the food, health, economy, environment, technology, and well-being of all. We are a nation that has reaped the benefits of a successful agricultural system. This has allowed our society to flourish, engage in leisure activities, and dream about future endeavors. Our successful innovations concerning food and fiber have resulted in fewer farmers and larger yields. However, this success story has come with a consequence—a society that has little understanding concerning agricultural production and processing, and how this system meets our basic needs (food, clothing, shelter), and relates or interacts with a sustainable environment and our quality of life. Daily decisions made by individuals, through dollars and voting, affect our agricultural system—from soil to spoon. If U.S. agriculture is going to continue to meet the needs of the U.S. population and address growing global needs, agriculture needs to be understood and valued by all.

By 2050 the world’s population is projected to reach 9 billion people requiring agricultural production to double—with less land and water—while sustaining our planet. More food will have to be produced in the next 50 years than the past 10,000 years combined. The U.S. agricultural sector annually accounts for 1% ($159 billion) of the $15.9 trillion U.S. GDP (Spielmaker, Pastor & Stewardson, 2014, p. 11).

While this percentage appears to be low, it should be noted that, as a country, the U.S. has the largest economy in the world (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013). The current 1% of the U.S. population working on farms is supported by nearly 21 million agricultural sector related U.S. workers, or about 15% of the total U.S. workforce (Goecker, Smith, Smith, & Goetz, 2010).

Annually, there are about 54,000 jobs in agriculture but only about 29,000 students are graduating in directly related agricultural degree programs, consequently creating a 45% gap. (Goecker, et al., 2010). With only 1% of the U.S. population actively engaged on farms and 15% in related careers, a majority of consumers—youths and adults—do not have a fundamental understanding of agriculture or how it impacts their lives. In addition, as agriculture has become more specialized, even those engaged in agriculture may know little about the resources and other inputs used to produce food, clothing, and shelter outside of their purview. In order to meet the challenges of the future, it is imperative that young people and adults become informed, “agriculturally literate” consumers, advocates, and policymakers regarding agricultural issues.

In 1988, the National Research Council of the National Academies appointed a committee of agricultural educators and researchers to determine the future direction of agricultural education. The committee published its findings in a report titled, Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education. In this report the committee stated that “Agriculture—broadly defined—is too important a topic to be taught only to the relatively small percentage of students considering careers in agriculture…” (National Research Council, 1988, p. 8). The committee also published these two important findings: 1) “Most Americans know very little about agriculture, its social and economic significance in the United States, and particularly its links to human health and environmental quality,” and 2) “Few systematic educational efforts are made to teach or otherwise develop agricultural literacy in students of any age. Although children are taught something about agriculture, the material tends to be fragmented, frequently outdated, usually only farm oriented, and often negative or condescending in tone” (p. 21). This committee recommended that “Beginning in kindergarten and continuing through twelfth grade, all students should receive some systematic instruction about agriculture” (p. 20). The committee envisioned that “an agriculturally literate person would understand the food and fiber system and this would include its history and its current economic, social and environmental significance to all Americans” (p. 8).

More recently, the National Research Agenda for Agricultural Education (Doerfert, 2011) established six priorities to address issues in agricultural education. These priorities were informed by a report titled, Science Roadmap of Food and Agriculture (2010). That report identified the following societal needs (p. 2):

• The need for U.S. food and agricultural producers to be competitive in a global environment.
• The need for food and agricultural systems to be economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.
• The need for U.S. agriculture to adapt to and contribute to the mitigation of the effects of climate variability.
• The need to enhance energy security and support a sustainable bioeconomy in the United States.
• The need for safe, healthy, and affordable foods.
• The need to address global food security and hunger.
• The need to be good stewards of the environment and natural resources.
• The need for strong and resilient individuals, families, and communities.

In an effort to address some of these societal needs that would result in long term sustainable solutions, Priority 1 of the National Research Agenda suggested research in the area of: Public and Policy Maker Understanding[s] of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Within the priority, authors identify areas of scientific focus that include (p. 8):

• Increasing our understanding of related message and curriculum development, delivery method preferences and effectiveness, and the extent of change in audience knowledge, attitudes, perceptions and behaviors after experiencing an educational program or consuming related information and messages.
• Demonstrating the impact of agricultural literacy efforts on a variety of stakeholder behaviors including consumer behavior (e.g. K-12 test scores, voting behavior, food consumption behavior). Literacy research efforts must be reciprocal in that members of the agriculture industry must also increase their understanding of various stakeholder group needs and/or behaviors.
• Determining the potential of emerging social media technologies, message formats, and strategies in realizing a citizenry capable of making agriculture-related informed decisions.

The second research bullet is aligned with the National Agricultural Literacy Logic Model (Appendix A) objectives and supports agricultural literacy intended Knowledge/Behavior/Skill outcomes for K-20 youth (“National Agriculture in the Classroom,” 2013):

• Understand how Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is integrated into agriculture
• Identify and understand the connections between academic subjects and agricultural careers including, but not limited to, STEM
• Understand the relationships between agriculture, the environment, plants and animals for food, fiber, energy, health, and society and economics
• Understand the importance and value of agriculture in their daily life
• Practice and apply STEM skills in the context of agriculture
• Explore and pursue courses and careers related to agriculture and STEM
• Demonstrate or explain relationships between agriculture, the environment, plants and animals for food, fiber, energy, health, and society and economics
• Explain the value of agriculture and how it is important in their daily life

These published academic research priorities and nationally developed outcomes frame agricultural literacy programs. Nationally, the leading agricultural literacy program is Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC), which has a presence in 47 states. AITC is largely supported by stakeholders in the agricultural industry. In a recent survey of states, nearly half (49%) reported their entire budget came from private agriculturally related organizations or donors, and 42% reported a combination of state and private money (Spielmaker, 2012), signaling financial support for agricultural literacy at a “grass-roots” level. Stakeholders have supported agricultural literacy programs in the hope that people (primarily youth) will understand the necessity of agriculture, value agricultural production, and support agricultural science that ensures an affordable, safe, abundant, high quality food system.

AITC, and similar agricultural literacy efforts, have developed and implemented programs over the last 25 years. However, there has been limited research to detect program effectiveness or the effects of interventions on baseline knowledge and perceptions or attitudes concerning agricultural literacy concepts and agriculture’s relationship to: the environment, plants and animals for food and fiber use, lifestyle, technology, and the economy. This multistate research project seeks to measure agricultural literacy knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes; and conduct program or intervention evaluations to assess if programming is having an effect toward the goal of an agriculturally literate populous that “understands and can communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects our quality of life” (“National Agriculture in the Classroom,” 2013).

Previous agricultural literacy research has been limited to a particular locale, population, or content area. This multistate approach would provide a continuity for measurement and increase external validity. The research objectives outlined in this proposal require a coordinated multistate approach to conduct research that results in generalizable conclusions. The information gathered in this multistate effort will provide programming staff and stakeholders with solid data for future program planning to achieve agricultural literacy outcomes.

A coordinated effort to conduct agricultural literacy research is long overdue. Recently, there has been renewed interest in food production and processing practices, i.e., agriculture. In the last decade there have been notable increases in food production/processing media, including books noted on The New York Times Best Sellers list, several “big-screen” movies, and the appearance of a variety of social media resources and groups. A necessity to explore the motivations of individuals to seek information, who these individuals are, and their associated agricultural values would improve our ability to effectively communicate knowledge about agriculture. In addition, while this “renaissance” shows a greater desire by people to understand where their food comes from and how our basic needs are met, a consumer (reader, viewer, or follower) with limited agricultural knowledge may not be able to distinguish fact from fiction, detect pseudo-science, or weigh risks and benefits. Innovations in science have also caused increased instances in which information has not been interpreted appropriately. For example, chemical levels once measured at parts per million now can be detected at parts per trillion. The perception is that food is dangerous since the detection levels are labeled as present without the consumer also understanding the level of risk. Measuring baseline knowledge and correlating this knowledge with attitudes and perceptions provides stakeholders with data for more targeted educational initiatives, but, more importantly, research-based targeted systemic educational efforts should result in people who make more informed decisions concerning agricultural policies related to science and society.

If agricultural literacy is not addressed, we (consumers) may continue to have safe food and food choices available, but these choices may be overshadowed by shortages or higher costs that potentially affect our ability to meet our dietary needs. This situation affects society, the economy, and environment as a whole. In addition, agricultural products meet our clothing, shelter, and energy needs. Agricultural illiteracy affects these systems in a similar fashion.

Electronic communication and dialog during an annual research meeting make a multistate research project for agricultural literacy completely feasible. Participation in the group will be opened to all researchers, nationwide, interested in agricultural literacy. The research conducted in various states and regions is easily shared electronically and readily available for meta-analyses. A wiki has already been set up to serve as a repository for related research and collaboration. There is no environmental limitation for this type of research. A multistate effort leverages the capacity of the individuals and institutions with on-the-ground local resources that can be easily networked and analyzed as a whole. The information, made available to stakeholders, informs programming done nationally to implement interventions to increase agricultural literacy.

The objectives in this proposal outline work for five years. Upon completion, stakeholders will have agricultural knowledge data, and several program initiatives will have been evaluated. These results are necessary as a baseline to initiate decision-making that “moves the needle” toward an agriculturally literate society. It is noted, however, that while this work can be done through a multistate effort over the next five years, a long-term approach, as identified by phases over the next 15-20 years, will be necessary to measure long-term impacts.
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