Sharp fall off in tertiary study for agriculture and horticulture
On a global basis agriculture and horticulture face immense pressures, because of a loss of political influence and low levels of interest by young people in pursuing careers in land-based industries, says Emeritus Professor Ian Warrington. The former Massey University deputy vice-chancellor is a board member of the International Society for Horticultural Science and co-President of the International Horticultural Congress IHC2014, Brisbane, August 2014.
Communities had come to expect a year-round supply of fresh, safe produce. Nonetheless, recent food crises in both Europe and the United States showed supply systems were fragile. "The reality is that these systems are technically more complex and more challenging than ever before. Consumers too have every right to expect that their food will be safe." Warrington believes that we need the brightest and best to commit to careers in agriculture and horticulture, to assure the future of New Zealand's exports in these sectors. "Food at supermarkets is plentiful and relatively cheap. Politicians and consumers don't think about what has gone into producing and supplying it." Buy-local campaigns were commendable, he said, but added that our food came from all around the world. Few people understood what was required to get that food and the associated range of choice to them, so that it was always available.
"When I was a kid we used to have strawberries for a treat and only had them for a few weeks during summer. Lettuces too were only available in the summer months. Now you can get them year-round. And think about where your coffee, bananas, mangos and pineapples come from." Warrington said all this diversity and reliability of supply required expert knowledge in appropriate harvesting schedules, shipping and storage systems and packaging methods. "The skill levels required by those working at every stage in these industries are all at higher levels than ever before."
He said many institutions around the world had downsized, or got rid of their horticulture and agriculture departments and replaced them with general biology departments. Warrington said that when he was considering doing a PhD around 50 years ago, there were 20 universities in the US he could have gone to. Now there were only two or three that would meet those needs. It is not possible now to do a horticulture science degree in the Netherlands. The blame couldn't be laid squarely on universities for this, he said, given the decline in the numbers of students involved and the need for administrators to drive efficiencies in their organisations. Warrington said these losses in programmes could be linked to recent disease incursions into New Zealand, where a lack of skills and knowledge could be blamed in part.
"These events across borders can have a huge impact on exports and the work force. With Psa on kiwifruit, the export losses over the next five years will be in excess of $1 billion, while many people in the sector have lost their jobs because of the crop failures that are taking place. The incentive to promote and retain programmes focused on our key industries is very high indeed."
In New Zealand, Warrington said many young people now perceived that there was a lack of a career structure for scientists. He said funding for scientists, often including their salaries, was frequently up for tender. "The rest of society might not have too much sympathy for that, given that others such as tradespeople have to go through similar practices on a routine basis. "However, a science career can be based on up to 25 years of study underpinned by considerable student loans." Warrington said young people who wanted to be scientists, wanted some surety of a career if they were to make such massive commitments. But, he said, on a positive note, agriculture and horticulture enrolments at Australian universities were up markedly this year. Warrington said one of the major challenges facing the primary sector in New Zealand, was the fact that fewer and fewer people were involved with the rural sector. Around 50 years ago, worldwide, 70 per cent of people lived rurally, and it is now 50 per cent, and expected to fall further.
He said that in the United Kingdom there were only 10 per cent living in rural areas, in France it was 22 per cent and in the US it was at 18 per cent. "It means there is no political mandate for agriculture and horticulture any more in most countries around the world. For instance, in New Zealand, there are no longer any politicians who are entirely dependent on the rural vote. In fact, there are more politicians representing greater Auckland than there are in the whole of the South Island." The former president of the Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture Science, John Lancashire, said young people were often turned off science. He said one rural organisation, DairyNZ, needed 1000 graduates in the next few years and there would be only 300 available. To try to address some of these issues, and raise awareness of horticulture across the globe, Warrington said a booklet, Harvesting the Sun, had been prepared by the International Society for Horticultural Science. It is freely available to schools and to industry to improve understanding, and to encourage people to commit to a career in the sector.
Warrington said the Olympics of horticulture was coming "down under" with the International Horticulture Congress being held in Australia next year. The four-year event is usually held in the northern hemisphere. The last time it was held in Australia was 1978 and organisers say it could be another 30 years before it comes back to this part of the world. The 29th congress is being held August 17 to 24, 2014, in Brisbane. It would cover fruit, vegetables, flowers, nursery, turf, landscaping and more. Warrington said about 3000 people were expected, 500 of them from China. "So wake up New Zealand, we need more horticulturalists."
This article originally published in New Zealand by stuff.co.nz