On Becoming a Change Agent

I must have always thought in multiple dimensions.   I remember the anxiety I felt in high school when I recognized that all my friends had definite goals in life, but I wanted to pursue a different goal each day.  Within days, I would bounce from wanting to be a forest ranger to wanting to be a writer, a scientist, a teacher, a greenhouse manager, a restaurant owner, a doctor, or vet… As I perused the college guidebooks, I discovered that students in agricultural and extension education could study pretty much anything that did not involve practicing medicine.  That was all I needed to know.  Upon graduation, I enrolled in the college of agriculture and home economics.  It was there that I first heard the term “change agent.”
The “Change Agent”, according to Dr. Gene Ross, was a county extension agent.  He said their role was to transfer our best new technologies to farmers and ranchers to promote change.  In the ideal world, extension agents were assigned the task of working closely with farmers, food producers, and scientists to ensure that new technology development was guided by real needs, and that the latest, most advanced agricultural technologies were made available to producers.  It all sounded good at the time.  At least in theory.  I learned from the change agents I spent time with that available resources were rarely sufficient to ensure that the agent spent time with more than a few growers and scientists.  There was always more work than there was staff to perform it.
When I went looking for a job, I landed, not in extension, or even in ag ed.  Rather, I landed in the highly structured environment of public education.  I survived there only five years before I recognized that mastering molecular genetics was easier than teaching Johnny to convert moles to grams.  Suddenly, graduate school beckoned.
My next career carried me into the world of research, where I examined microbial dynamics in natural systems.  There, I learned that many of the invisible microbes we exterminate with agrochemicals, food preservatives, and prescription drugs are central to both human and environmental health.  I learned that our soil and water quality problems could be restored simply by promoting establishment of natural microbial communities.  I learned that it was not okay to express these ideas in the presence of administrators whose budgets depended on promoting the belief that new technologies and new chemicals are needed.
Soon, I began to wonder how many human health problems are the result of lost microbial diversity in our food and on our bodies.  I found much more evidence to support this idea than I found to contradict it.  This sad truth forced me to reconsider the entire model of education, research, and technology transfer upon which our colleges of agriculture are based.  I wondered if the barriers that separate policy makers and funding agencies from extension agents, farmers, and scientists alike was simply too thick to allow beneficial interactions between new innovations and ancient wisdom to occur.  New technologies have been promoted at the expense of what is tried and tested far too often.
And so with the passing of time, I’ve come to question the need for change agents.  Have we stripped microbes from our biomes and nutrition from our food system because we had too many change agents?  Or was it because we did not have enough? Was it because they were too poorly trained?  Or because the funding that was given them was channeled through too many administrators?   Maybe the problem lies in the simple fact that we entrusted our land, our food, our health, and our education to external change agents like extension agents, doctors, and teachers. Maybe we should have trusted our own senses and observations, in combination with the wisdom we received from those who came before us, to help us grow food that smelled good, tasted good, and promoted good health.  Maybe we should have questioned that uneasiness we felt when we recognized that the insecticide we used on the aphids was also taking out ladybugs and lacewings. Maybe we should have questioned whether chemicals that come marked with hazard labels could be good for our food.  Maybe we should start asking what we, as individuals, can do to restore what we have depleted.

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