Is Horticultural Science in Crisis? What is Needed to Assure Its Future?

Prof. Dr. Errol W. Hewett
Is Horticultural Science in Crisis? What is Needed to Assure Its Future?
  • "Kenya has a shortage of competent horticultural staff at institutional and commercial levels."
  • "Horticulture is facing a crisis in the United Kingdom."
  • "Is horticulture a withering field in the USA?"
  • "Concerns over shortage of agriculture graduates In Australia."
  • "Uganda's flower sector faces an imminent shortage of qualified managers and supervisors in flower firms."
  • "New Zealand horticulture requires a net increase of 7,800 qualified people by 2025 with an additional 26,300 people needed to cover natural attrition."
  • ...

Horticulture is facing a crisis in many countries, as captioned above. There are insufficient well-trained people available to service the broad range of careers in the horticulture sector, and employers are becoming very concerned. A recent Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) publication noted that 70% of horticultural businesses surveyed in the UK struggled to fill skilled vacancies, with 90% saying horticulture lacked career appeal (RHS, 2014). Within the last 11 years, the number of horticultural graduates has declined from about 150 to about 40 per year in Australia. Horticultural degrees have disappeared from all universities apart from Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne, with similar trends in many European, American and Oceanic countries. It has been projected that the horticulture sector will require about 2,000 new jobs each year for the next decade in order to retain its current situation (J.E. Pratley, Charles Sturt University, personal communication).

Science underpins successful horticultural development, whether on large corporate farms or agro-enterprises in developed countries or small subsistence units and small and medium enterprises in developing countries. The US Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture indicated that too few scientists are being trained in all areas of science related to agriculture (including horticulture) (Enoch, 2014).

World population and horticulture

World population increased by nearly 1 billion people between 2000 and 2012, a 16% increase (Table 1).

Table 1.  World population 2000 and 2012.
  Billion persons  
  2000 2012 % change
World 6,070 7,058 16.2
Africa 796 1,072 34.6
Asia 3,680 4,216 14.6
Americas 841 942 12
Europe 728 740 1.6
Oceania 31 37 19.3
Source:  Derived from FAOSTATS

World production of vegetables and fruit increased by about 32% over the same period, with the largest increases in Africa and Asia (Table 2). This was a 62% increase of vegetable production in Africa and 73% increase in fruit production in Asia. In contrast fruit and vegetable production in Europe decreased by 13% for vegetables and 36% for fruit. Despite this, micronutrient deficiency is now a major global challenge.

What is Horticulture?

The public often perceives horticulture as requiring no tertiary education and few if any skills and having to work long hours in menial tasks, in all weathers and seasons. However, horticulture is a knowledge intensive vitally important industry comprising internationally integrated chains and deserves its ‘own place in the sun’. 

Table 2.  World Vegetable and Fruit  Production 2000 and 2012
    Tonnes (million)    
    2012 2000 % change  
World Vegetables 1,792.00 1390.2 28.9  
  Fruit 839.1 625.1 34.2  
Africa Vegetables 283.1 175 61.8  
  Fruit 112.9 76.7 47.2  
Asia Vegetables 1,120 804 39.3  
  Fruit 480.8 278.7 72.5  
Americas Vegetables 161 153 5.2  
  Fruit 157.7 141.9 11.1  
Europe Vegetables 210 242.1 -13.3  
  Fruit 79.6 124.6 -36.2  
Oceania Vegetables 7.8 6.7 16.4  
  Fruit 6.8 5.4 25.9  
Source:  FAOSTATS: Accessed October 2014.    

Farr (2014) stated that "Horticulture is a synthesis of science, technology, art and society; implementing it requires technical appreciation of engineering, plant sciences, ecology, - including marketing, strategic management, human resources and financial planning".

Horticulture must develop its own specific 'brand', distinct from agriculture. According to Kahane and Pilot (2012) horticulture is rapidly decreasing in recognition as a distinct academic science, often being included in subjects such as Natural Resources or Plant and Environmental Sciences. Knowledge is needed for enhancing yields and improving production, harvesting, processing, packaging, storage and transportation for supplying quality products using modern techniques and technologies. Successful horticultural industries depend on expertise spanning several disciplines such as specialised plant breeders, plant physiologists, plant pathologists, entomologists, soil scientists, horticultural engineers, agribusiness managers; hence training of horticultural professionals in a coherent and synergistic manner is desirable.

Horticultural foods provide a range of nutrients and different bioactive compounds including phytochemicals (phenolics, flavonoids and carotenoids), vitamins, (vitamin C, folate and pro-vitamin A), minerals (potassium, calcium and magnesium) and fibre (Liu 2013). The production of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers is generally seen as being more profitable for small farmers as they are high-value commodities with value-added income generation potential (Weinberger and Lumpkin, 2005). However, the traditional staple crops (e.g. cassava, sorghum and rice) generally grown by smallholder farmers are also important sources of carbohydrate and cannot be ignored as a food and livelihood option, also requiring the attention of horticulture scientists.

Horticulture also contributes to quality of life and lifestyles, to the beauty and sustainability of the human environment through local and national parks, reserves and gardens and to enhancement of community economic value. Amenity or community horticulture contributes to improved mental and community health and to the local and national economy. Aldous and Johnston (2012) state that the global urban horticulture market was worth US$287.5 billion. A report on protected open spaces in SE Pennsylvania (Anon., 2011) said they added $16.3 billion to housing stock value, $240 million in annual property and transfer tax revenue, $577 million in annual benefit to residents who recreate in open spaces, and reduced costs by $133 million through the natural provision of environment services, and $795 million annually in avoided medical costs plus the creation of 6,900 jobs.

Why does horticulture lack?

For horticulture and horticultural science to prosper, an active advocacy and marketing programme targeting the youth is needed. Career options for horticultural graduates are wide, including roles in producing nutritious fruit and vegetables, ensuring access to parks and gardens and the practice of sustainable production, postharvest and amenity horticultural systems. Horticultural graduates in New Zealand and Australia can receive more than $70,000 on initial recruitment into selective highly responsible roles with great opportunities for rapid advancement and income increases.

However, a deficit in horticultural graduates remains. Kenya needs more competent horticultural staff at institutional and commercial levels. New Zealand horticulture needs an extra 7,800 qualified people by 2025 with 26,300 more people to cover natural attrition. In Australia there are 60,000 unfilled jobs in the agriculture/horticulture sector, but only 500 graduates every year to fill them.

The White Paper "Promoting Horticulture in the United States" (Anon., 2014) states: "Today our world is highly dependent on horticultural expertise to provide the technology and people necessary to meet the rapidly increasing global demand for fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and ornamentals in the face of the changing global environment and limited natural and financial resources. Horticultural Science is critical in improving the nutritional content of food, enhancing the safety of our produce supply, and increasing the supply of healthy, local and sustainably produced foods. Expertise in environmental horticulture is necessary to address the global issues of climate change; water quality, availability, storm water runoff, and retention; and energy production through biofuels. Additionally, the role that horticulture plays in promoting positive mental well-being, on a large scale from public botanic gardens, parks, and sports fields, to small scale individual home gardens is critical to our life today.

The International Society for Horticultural Science [ISHS] has launched an advocacy campaign. A book (ISHS, 2012) and a video (on You Tube - titled: "Harvesting the Sun" demonstrate the breadth, range and diversity of horticulture, its nutritional, health, economic, community and social importance. Its simple text has been translated into several languages, with more to follow.

The RHS report "Horticulture Matters" (2014), aims to improve the perception of horticulture in society and to Government; embed horticulture in education; and promote and support training. Several initiatives have been launched, with a focus on youth. The USA programme also focuses on young people; by raising funds for integrating horticulture firmly into core curricula at schools, to develop marketing programmes for universities and colleges to reach parents and potential students, and to promote knowledge about the importance of horticulture to the general public (Anon., 2014).

Can the declining trend be reversed?

It is crucial that more young people undertake advanced education and training as the sector requires an adequate and skilled workforce to fulfil its undoubted potential. Possible options include:

Marketing and advocacy

(i) Make horticulture appealing. A comprehensive marketing or advocacy programme is needed. The messages would include:

modern horticulture is high-tech, diverse and interesting topic of study;
horticulture will be essential to addressing global challenges such as food insecurity and global warming;
horticulture has diverse and well-paid interesting jobs (demonstrable through case studies);
horticulture is international and employment opportunities are available worldwide.

(ii) Should the sector be renamed? In the USA, Government (through the US Department of Agriculture) no longer funds horticultural research; but has increased funding for R&D in the Specialty Crops programme that is defined as "fruit, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruit, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture)."

(iii) Provide data/evidence on the implications of the decline in horticulture graduates. African heads of Government, through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme [CAADP], have agreed to allocate 10% of budget and to achieve 6% growth in agriculture annually. Creation of six regional hubs of excellence, strategically located throughout the continent, would facilitate research on local and regional problems and could morph into a network of scientific and educational centres for advanced horticultural education and training (Kahane and Pilot, 2012).

(iv) Individual horticultural sectors and enterprises must cooperate with other committed agencies in funding and advocacy campaigns.

Educate and encourage youth

(i) Start advocacy early.

(ii) Adjust curricula at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. A balanced combination of lectures, laboratory and practical fieldwork under enthusiastic teachers, lecturers, mentors, and with an international perspective is important.

(iii) Encourage educational and career pathways. Students, parents and career advisory officers at school need accurate information about employment and remuneration options for horticultural graduates.

(iv) New pedagogical models. Wals et al. (2013) suggested that traditional tertiary agricultural and horticultural education programmes are inadequate for meeting the global challenges of the next 50 years.

(v) Meeting society demands. The societal benefits of horticulture should be highlighted and promoted through multiple media sources with wide circulation.

There are emerging signs that more students are enrolling in tertiary education programmes in horticulture in some countries. This should be nurtured.


Production of fruit and vegetables has increased faster than the rate of world population from 2000 to 2012. This is especially evident in Africa and Asia. Considerable progress has been made in meeting MDG goals; poverty has been reduced by 50%; hunger continues to decline; chronic child undernutrition and child mortality has almost halved although much more has to be done.

The progressive growth in horticulture was underpinned by enhanced horticultural extension, research and development programmes. However, a major shortfall in horticultural graduates exists that could threaten the future of the industry over the next two decades. It is imperative that a highly qualified, well-skilled and educated horticultural workforce, from input supplier to producer to other actors throughout the supply chain to the market, is maintained or increased immediately. A few national and international agencies have embarked on advocacy programmes to change the perspective of families, students and communities and raise awareness of the importance of horticulture and the opportunities in the sector. An international effort through cooperation, collaboration and coordination involving international and national agencies, industry groups and tertiary institutions is needed. This will increase the production of scientists, extension specialists, industry experts and consultants in feeding, nourishing and beautifying our world.


Originally published by: CTA (2015.01.11)

Author: Errol W. Hewett, Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand


global challenges
General Interest