Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
Rethinking agriculture at AUB
The Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS) is rightly held up as a “faculty of firsts” at AUB for its venerable history of innovation, inspiration and, impact. For 66 years, the school has developed programs and research in the service of Lebanon and the region as a land grant school, efforts that have made vital and cutting-edge thinking and practice available in the fields of farming, healthy nutrition, food safety and landscape architecture and management. Joining the university administration this term as dean of FAFS, Dr. Rabi Mohtar brings an impressive portfolio of academic and leadership credentials that are well placed to build on the accomplished tenure of his predecessor, Dr. Nahla Hwalla, in order to repurpose the faculty for the challenging future that we on this planet face.
Dr. Mohtar’s contributions at Texas A&M and Purdue universities have focused on resource management through the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus along the agricultural supply chain. This “system of systems” approach takes us beyond the narrow definition of agriculture as upstream food production, in the field or greenhouse, encompassing a continuum of land use, landscape management, production, packaging, delivery, and retail, and is inclusive of technology, policy, science, economics, and everything in between. It places collaborative action as a priority, making the first objective of the new leadership to connect the dots between the three major departments at FAFS, while simultaneously reaching out to other faculties, disciplines, and partners, not just at AUB but throughout the region to achieve synergies across multiple levels and sectors . As such, the future of FAFS will be redefined and achieve the crosscutting, multidisciplinary research and educational model that we need to meet the nutritional and environment challenges which today are great and pressing in this region.
Food security and economic growth
The Levant was a major scene for the foundation of agriculture in Neolithic times, and the medieval Islamic empire too saw transformative innovation in farming and livestock care emanate from this region. But as time passed, we have become net importers of many types of food, but also more alarmingly, of the technology and competencies to produce the yields we need to provide a healthy, affordable diet. But expertise at AUB being applied at all stages of the supply chain can give us a historic opportunity to start reversing this trend.
Food security is a complex challenge, one which relies on optimizing a matrix of different elements: sustainable domestic production, proper management of finite land and water resources, and a diversified portfolio of imports. Add to that political instability, high land opportunity costs, growing populations, and the impact of global climate change on resources and diseases, and it is clear that achieving future food security is going to take some serious homegrown science and planning. Put bluntly, we will have to grow more food using less land, and less water and energy if human existence here in the arid and semi-arid lands is to remain viable at current levels.
Technical solutions can be found to reduce water intensive food production, which currently uses close to 80 percent of Lebanon’s fresh water supply. Political and infrastructure solutions must be found to start reusing water. (As an example, River Thames water is reused eight times before it reaches London.) And social behavior must change, with 45 percent of our food production being thrown away unused, with all the wasted virtual water and energy that implies. With FAFS at the forefront of new thinking in Lebanon and the Arab world, we have the faculty and graduates who can and will answer these questions, in collaboration with their colleagues in the fields of the basic sciences, engineering, business, and health. We can train farmers, haulers, and retailers, and advise governments to ensure the right balance of domestic production and importation, while encouraging intensive niche product development to support national GDP. Lebanese food is already a hallmark for taste and quality in restaurants around the world. Let FAFS make our contribution to food security a mark of pride for this country too!
Student experience and opportunity
While the FAFS have grown in strength and made significant educational and research contributions in recent years, there are significant opportunities for growth in both the numbers and the quality of its student body and in augmenting its impact through investment and infrastructure development. The Advancing Research Enabling Communities Center (AREC), our 100-hectare experimental station, has also been underutilized and has lacked the kind of visionary approach needed for this unique scientific, educational, experiential, and social amenity in the heart of the Beqaa Valley . The time has come to reverse these strategic lapses, starting with a new push to define our areas of strength and those gaps that we need to strengthen. For AREC we are exploring several growth and multidisciplinary opportunities beyond classical agriculture making it an innovation hub for renewable technologies development, training, and practices in agriculture, water, energy, and animal and human health.
The agriculture and biological engineering discipline in the US, as Dr. Mohtar and others know well, experienced an identity crisis 15-20 years ago, when the image of the combine harvester and the boundless wheat field lost appeal among new generations of students enticed away by more inspiring subject choices. The faculties that updated their cores—Purdue and TAMU as examples—while retaining their overall identities, have fared the best as opposed to those that graduated more towards other disciplines of biological and environmental engineering. In 2018, the same challenge/opportunity is now upon us in the MENA region, to modernize the core of agriculture and align it more closely to other disciplines.
The jobs market that lays ahead for our students will reflect this modernized approach—professional opportunities that hardly exist currently, but will become central in a brave new agricultural future: working with information technology to develop sensors and communications protocols for smart agriculture, with nanotechnology to develop membranes to clean waste water of harmful content while retaining the phosphorus, nitrogen, and micronutrients for better crop yields. While training the best and brightest students, we also need to reach out to new partners in the entrepreneurial sphere and enable new markets for our graduates with new competencies to be part of that innovation in new agricultural products that will enable a new agriculture to keep us fit and health sustainably in coming generations.
The subjects of agriculture, nutrition, food production, landscape management and water use touch all of our lives on a daily basis and all the individuals driving the changes, faculty, staff and students, should be genuinely celebrated by a grateful community that owes their very existence to their efforts.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD