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.

When I developed the FMNP in 2001, I sought input from agricultural professionals and included their views in educational videos used in the Freshwater Wetlands and the Upland Habitats courses. Their messages address best management practices, water conservation, wildlife habitat and self-imposed taxes implemented to improve production practices, to name a few.

Their messages also discuss the importance of a safe and reliable food supply. One of my favorite video clips is by Norman Todd (agricultural consultant and former citrus manager), who states that “food production is a national security issue.”

This is an important point and illustrates that agriculture is necessary and shouldn’t be compared in every respect to natural areas.

That being said, maintaining healthy ecosystems that provide environmental services, such as clean water, fisheries, recreation and a plethora of economic enterprises, is also a national security issue.

We need both agriculture and natural areas and to the extent possible, we need these two landscapes to complement each other. These are some of the messages of the FMNP.

So the next time you hear someone make derogatory comments about environmentalists, you might consider repeating a comment by my friend Mark Colbert, of A. Duda and Sons, “I am an environmentalist, I’m a farmer.”

Dr. Martin Main is a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee and leader of the Florida Master Naturalist Program. He can be reached at mmain@ufl.edu.



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