Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Focus on Education to Feed the Future

By Kadambot Siddique

Agricultural science education is a national priority for the nation’s food security.

Australia ranks fourth in the world behind Brazil, Argentina and The Netherlands as a net exporter of agricultural products, and typically exports 60–70% of its output, helping meet the food requirements of Australia’s 22 million people plus another 60 million overseas.

Conservative estimates suggest Australia helps feed 400–500 million people in developing countries through agricultural education, training, development, knowledge and technology transfer in partnership with developing countries and International Agricultural Research Centres.

Using a wide range of indicators, including water, fertiliser and energy use efficiency and rate of adoption of technologies such as conservation agriculture, Australian agriculture leads the world.

Australia is one of the most food-secure nations in an increasingly global economy where borders are open, trade barriers are down and deals are done to ensure food moves smoothly from its place of development to the developing place – despite internal and external conflicts that sometimes impede the transfer of protein and carbohydrate wealth from accumulators to acquirers.

However, the transition generally continues daily around this essentially food-rich planet – with its population of seven billion on track to add another billion in the next 12 years – due to the farmers, traders, governments and consumers.

Modern society can’t thrive without access to a high level of sustainable, economical and quality food. The challenge is to find solutions to declining natural resources – land, water and nutrients – and rising human population, so investment today in higher education in agricultural science is money well spent for the future.

Continued long-term improvements in world food production are fundamental to world security. Feeding the growing population will require renewed and vigorous efforts to enhance agricultural productivity, utilising all the advantages that modern science and technology bring.

Governments will need to increase investments in agricultural education, R&D and extension – and implement policies that incentivise the private sector to invest in R&D to ensure future agricultural growth.

Farming’s viability is threatened by the current focus on the mining and resources sector, which is pulling bright young minds away from higher education in natural and agricultural sciences.

Agricultural science graduates at the University of WA enjoy a 100% success rate when it comes to employment, but pay scales suffer compared with jobs in the mining and resources sector, where unqualified young people can enjoy $100,000+ starting salaries.

So, how do we address the challenge?

• Bridge the city–country gap with educational and awareness programs to enthuse and inform the community, from primary school age children, of the vital importance of agriculture and food productions systems.

• Develop co-teaching qualifications with graduate degrees in agricultural science to place some graduates into the school system as champions of agricultural science.

• Promote the diversity of employment opportunities (both domestic and international) for agriculture science graduates.

• Close the cultural gap between industry and universities, better define industry needs and develop closer collaborations with commercial groups and companies (including food processors and retailers) to increase consumer interest in food and enable agricultural science graduates to pursue careers where they could “sell” the farming food story.

• Rationalise the collaboration between university courses and “smart” systems of delivery, and encourage greater links between metropolitan universities and rural environments, possibly linking with local government authorities for training/work experience.

• Encourage graduates from other disciplines to seek postgraduate qualifications in agricultural science through commercially funded scholarships for postgraduate programs in key areas and disciplines.

• And formalise worldwide networking of agricultural faculties to attract the best students and become powerhouses of ideas and applicable science to keep the world well-fed at an affordable price.

There needs to be a clear signal from governments that agriculture is an essential industry for the Australian economy and that it contributes significantly to the high standard of living of Australians and the associated high quality of food consumed by the nation.

Agriculture should be highlighted as a national priority for education in the same way as mathematics and science are and as nursing and education have been previously.

Winthrop Professor Kadambot Siddique AM FTSE is Chair in Agriculture and Director of the UWA Institute of Agriculture at The University of Western Australia.