Program helps educate the public about ag, the environment

07/09/2012 12:47:00 PM
Martin Main

Clean water, environmental health and endangered species are often portrayed by the media and special interest groups as being directly threatened by agriculture.

Conversely, groups and individuals interested in ensuring agricultural practices do not pollute water resources, cause environmental degradation or drive rare species to extinction are often labeled as radical environmentalists.

The polarization between these two views is often portrayed by the media as representative of all agricultural and conservation interests when in reality, what happens on the ground is somewhere between these two extremes.

Unfortunately, most public audiences only hear these extreme views and, consequently, develop opinions based on that information.

Imagine a successful statewide program that provides a balanced perspective and educates adult audiences about the important roles Florida agriculture plays in providing wildlife habitat and other ecological services.

Also imagine that this program doesn’t simply provide information, but trains and empowers individuals to share that information with others.

Consider the importance of an educated citizenry that not only values natural areas and wildlife, but recognizes the necessity of food production and the contributions that agriculture makes in providing wildlife habitat, areas for groundwater recharge and open space that contributes to the aesthetics of a rural landscape.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has such a program, and more than 1,000 people go through it every year.

The program I’m describing is the Florida Master Naturalist Program, a statewide effort developed to educate Florida’s citizens about different environments, the plants and wildlife that use those areas, and the management and conservation issues that these species and areas face. Agricultural lands are included in those discussions.

Like other UF-IFAS programs, the information provided by the naturalist program is science based and balanced. As such, it is not an advocacy program that pits environment and agriculture against each other.

It is an honest forum where different views are discussed, ideas are shared and information is delivered that illustrates the roles of agriculture, the importance of natural areas, and how these two landscapes interact.

The FMNP provides a view that is realistic and optimistic and identifies the need to preserve landscapes—both agriculture and natural areas—for the future.

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