McALLEN — Connecting agriculture and health, making the state a model for the agriculture industry to follow and making the field more appealing to future generations, were among the major ideas during a panel between three key figures on Thursday evening at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center here.

This is also a part of the Advancing Texas Roadshow, with Texas A&M AgriLife visiting different venues across the state.

The event brought three panelists, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and Patrick Stover, vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife. Susan Ballabina, deputy vice chancellor, Texas A&M AgriLife, College Station, acted as the moderator for the panel.

The panel was open to those involved including farmers, ranchers and anyone interested in health and nutrition, according to a news release. There were over 100 attendees who signed up to attend the event.

Two goals of Texas A&M AgriLife are to make agriculture profitable and sustainable as a field, and linking agriculture with human health to prevent chronic diseases, according to Stover.

There are three blocks of focus: consumers, producers and decision-makers, which were all represented in the room. Targeting consumers by developing more trustworthy guidelines, working with producers to make more healthy food while increasing profitability of the system and collaborating with policymakers to encourage evidence-based decisions, were examples he cited.

Stover’s vision incorporated making the agriculture field more appealing, as the average age of a farmer is approaching 60 years old.

“So while we have the most abundant and affordable food system that’s ever been created in human history, it’s at risk because agriculture isn’t profitable enough to be sustained and get young people into the field,” he said.

He relayed the history of food abundance, but the lack of economic sustainability of agriculture and how healthcare costs have increased with this trend.

With changes in the agricultural industry, concerns have also arisen with health.

The Advancing Texas Roadshow Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, allowed Texas A&M leaders and faculty to share A&M AgriLife’s programs and their far-reaching impact at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“Agriculture isn’t about producing food anymore, it’s about producing healthy people, it’s about producing a healthy agricultural economy,” Stover said.

The connection between health and agriculture was also one of the themes. Chronic disease is related to diet, which has become a major concern to the government, he said.

“Diet of course is a major driver of healthcare costs related to chronic disease,” Stover said.

This is also costing the nation a significant amount of money.

“Diet-related chronic disease cost the U.S. economy one trillion dollars a year, that’s in health care costs, and… related loss of productivity,” Stover said.

Hinojosa agreed with this sentiment relating it to Texas, and that healthcare costs make up about 44% of the state budget, he said.

“(We) cannot sustain that type of cost in health care,” which takes up money from other important sectors such as education or infrastructure, Hinojosa added.

This “data-driven” research to create a healthier state, and lowering rates of diabetes and obesity can help to make better decisions and policies, Hinojosa said.

Over the past few years, many lawmakers have pushed for agriculture to be used to lower healthcare costs, Stover said. The university and its extensions are looking to provide the “policy evidence center” to find an answer to that.

Sharp said under Stover’s leadership that Texas can be a model for the nation based on science-based evidence with the goal of making people healthy. The use of natural resources has resulted in the growth of the state’s economy and Sharp’s vision may be key to another period of growth.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes are prominent in the Rio Grande Valley.

South Texas has a history of a strong agriculture industry with the region recently diversifying its economy to other things such as retail, Hinojosa said.

High rates of diabetes and obesity are among some of the health problems in the Rio Grande Valley, he said.

Questions of how to make food more nutritious while avoiding the components that may lead to chronic disease are other goals Stover has, he said. Texas has an issue with diet-related diseases, but also an agriculture base, which drew him to the state and may be a key to solving these issues.

“If anybody can solve this problem connecting agriculture and the consumer people for mutual benefit, it’s Texas, because we have a strong agricultural economy, especially here in the Valley,” Stover said. “But we also have one of the highest rates of diet related chronic disease, so Texas is so well-positioned to address this issue.”

“If we’re going to achieve what has to be achieved, that is to bridge the production agriculture to human health, for the benefit of both, we can do that research but we can’t do that in a vacuum,” Stover said.

Collaboration is a key to that, he said.

“If we want to have agriculture be relevant to everyone single Texan, we have to reach them and we do that through programs like Healthy Texas and other extension programs that we have,” Stover said.