Sow the seeds for farming's future

21 October 2013

This should be Australian agriculture's moment. After all, global food demand is forecast to increase 60 percent by 2050, with 70 percent of that rise in Asia.

This month Deloitte Access Economics named agribusiness one of five resurgent sectors that could fill the gap created by the slowing of mining.

Well-paid jobs are aplenty, with six opportunities for every graduate of an agriculture-related degree.

Yet a threat looms. Agriculture has the lowest proportion of workers with post-secondary qualifications of all economic sectors and there are fears it will fail to secure the future-skilled workforce it needs.

Experts predict agriculture will soon require 6000 tertiary-qualified graduates per year - in 2011 NSW universities produced 311. In the US the percentage of farmers with a degree is in the high teens. In Australia it is less than 10 percent.

This threat is not new. The sector has long struggled to present an image capable of attracting highly qualified workers and students into agriculture-related degrees. In the past this was understandable as perceptions plummeted alongside controversial reports on live animal exports, genetically modified foods, climate change, droughts and bushfires. Not to mention negative reports of rural life.

But now with a burgeoning global food market the sector's narrative is much brighter. It can boast domestic and international career opportunities, in disciplines as varied as engineering, business and environmental studies.

The family farm is still there, but with heightened global food security concerns so too are careers with the United Nations or World Bank. Students can advise companies on processing, brand and distribution; enhance farm management through robotics and intelligent automated systems; or promote environmentalism through Greenpeace.

However, for this new narrative to make a real difference, the educational experience must match the rhetoric. To ensure both recruitment and retention of students, the structure and composition of agricultural study must change.

At high school level this means no longer teaching agriculture as a one-dimensional discipline focused on production techniques. Curriculum should showcase interdependencies with various sciences, economics and social sciences, the study of climate change, as well as the possibilities of careers in environmental management, food production and business.

More field work and placements also need to be offered with state research agencies and the sector to excite students about agriculture's practical application to help tackle real-world problems.

At universities, degrees should be designed with graduate attributes in mind and linked with exciting career paths. Strong specialisation opportunities (in areas such as plant breeding, environmental management, soil science, hydrology, plant science, agronomy, animal production, economics and rural sociology) should exist alongside an acceptance of the interdisciplinary nature of agriculture where different disciplines will affect its study and practices.

At the University of Sydney we are linking our programs to complementary faculties. Our Faculty of Agriculture and Environment's teaching program in food and agribusiness will have strong links to our Business School. We are similarly strengthening our teaching in resource economics and agricultural economics by joining them with other economists in our Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Our strong agricultural research is also linked to other disciplines. In an Australian first we have launched a major interdisciplinary Centre for Carbon, Water and Food, with strong partnerships with China that will address globally recognised challenges.

An example of interdisciplinary research is precision agriculture, which is the future for cropping industries, using the power of satellites and communication technologies to manage crops right down to the square-metre scale. Our Centre for Field Robotics is developing ways of using automated systems for tasks such as invasive species detection, crop monitoring, and spraying. These applications of cutting-edge technologies are what modern agriculture is about.

Across all agricultural offerings we are working to increase opportunities for study and work placements overseas to prepare students for potential international careers.

Of course governments also need to play their part, starting with an integrated national strategy to address agriculture's skill shortages as well as adequate funding. The former Australian government's commissioned review of degree funding recommended a 25 percent increase for agricultural degrees.

Governments also need to integrate universities more with their research enterprises to offer more student experiences, and help universities fund international PhD scholarships that will attract high-quality international scholars to help renew our academic and research workforce.

It is time Australia improved its agricultural educational outcomes to maintain our international competitiveness and to seize this moment. Clearly we must take action to advance the sector and to reap rewards for our graduates and the Australian economy.

Dr Michael Spence is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.

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