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Three cheers for Michael Gove: if he can make Agriculture a STEM subject?

  • 7 January 2019
  • By Jo Price

A guest blog kindly contributed by Professor Jo Price, Vice-Chancellor at the Royal Agricultural University

During his session at the annual Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) on January 2nd 2019, Michael Gove mentioned that Agriculture should be considered as a STEM subject. This will be music to the ears of anyone working in the industry or in a university or college serving this sector. In response to a question, Mr Gove stated:

We need to make sure the next generation coming to work in farming and food production recognise it is one of the most scientifically exciting and academically rigorous areas of future industrial growth.

Global food security is a major global challenge and Brexit has turned the spotlight on UK Agriculture and the need for increased productivity (we only produce c.60% of our own food), while sustaining the environment for future generations.

Mr Gove and others keynote speakers at the OFC, including Sir Mark Walport, Head of UK Research and Innnovation, highlighted the importance of technology, data science and innovation to meeting these challenges. However, there is widespread recognition that there is a skills shortage in the agrifood sector and that more needs to be done to attract young talented people from a diverse range of backgrounds to address this. Not only do those of us in universities need to produce more entrepreneurial graduates who can lead, innovate and manage thriving businesses in the context of change, but there is also a desperate shortage of skilled workers who understand technology, can interpret complex data and operate the sophisticated equipment that productive farms increasingly depend upon.

Although Agriculture is a science based discipline increasingly dependent on the use of technology and data, it is not perceived to be a ‘modern’ subject of choice for young people.  More often it is considered to a ‘dirty’ job involving mud, wellington boots, physical labour and isolation. The problem is compounded by there being a limited understanding among those working in schools of the diverse and exciting range of careers available in the agri-food and land management sectors.

When the importance of food production was last fully recognised after the Second World War, it was supported by a number of government-funded institutes, most of which have since been closed. Large research-based universities have shown little interest and the discipline has struggled to attract high-calibre students to undertake the postgraduate research that is so vital if we are to address the important questions facing the industry and maintain, or re-establish, the level of world-class expertise for which the UK used to be renowned.

In other countries with greater agricultural productivity, like the US or the Netherlands or New Zealand, agriculture is promoted as an important, high-tech subject.   Acceptance by UK policy makers that agriculture should be included as a STEM subject would be transformational for the UK food and farming sector. The Food and Drink Sector Council is currently undertaking a programme of work on agri-skills. So now is also the ideal time to address this issue.

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