From sustainable intensification to integrated farm management systems, it seems as though engagement with sustainability in farming has come on leaps and bounds over the last generation.

Certainly, there is a growing awareness of sustainability issues among agriculture students and their teachers. Common sense alone tells us that agriculture should inherently be about long-term investment. Cycles of return in farming are long and farmers need businesses that are resilient in the face of political, environmental and economic instability.

But is enough being done to train new farmers in the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture, in the context of such instability? Or do they already recognise the need for, and importance of, sustainability in farming? And what does the term ‘sustainability’ mean to them anyway?

 

Sustainability and organic farming in education

In recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of applications to study food production based subjects. While organic farming isn’t the only form of ‘sustainable agriculture’, there are now more organic teaching options available to students than ever. Newcastle University’s School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has developed an MSc in Organic Farming and Food Production Systems (OFFPS) which provides specialist knowledge and skills through lectures, field courses, seminars, practical classes and research projects, while Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) runs a similar course in partnership with Elm Farm Organic Research Centre.

Several institutions have converted all or part of their college farmland to organic production, using trials and everyday practice to teach students about organic farming. For example, part of Harnhill Farm at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), Cirencester, is farmed organically, with a 120 sow outdoor organic pig operation integrated within the arable rotation. Newcastle University’s Nafferton Farm, meanwhile, was one of the earliest university farms to convert to organic production, transitioning in 2000.

Whether or not they use organic methods – most educators agree sustainability is about more than just organic farming – institutions aim to equip every student with an understanding of the principles of sustainability. This is regardless of whether students intend to farm organically in the future or not. Keely Harris-Adams from Nottingham University explains:

“In their first year, students study global food security and issues associated with feeding a growing population. They can then go on to examine the ethics of sustainable food production from a public policy angle. From a more scientific perspective, students study the biological, physical and chemical properties of soils and how to use this information for agricultural and environmental land management, including for example the importance of crop rotations and the link between animal welfare and production. Students also learn about business management, and what makes a farm or rural business financially sustainable.’’

 

How is sustainability being taught and encouraged?

There is increasing awareness within agricultural institutions that sustainable practices will not only be vital for farming’s environmental future but its economic future as well. Embedding a sense of economic, environmental and social sustainability in students is key. For example, Writtle College in Essex openly acknowledges that ‘organic’, ‘traceability’, ‘food miles’ and ‘local’ are becoming increasingly important terms in an agricultural context.

Sustainability is becoming foregrounded in higher education institutions and most now have a sustainability plan, encouraging the sustainable consumption of energy and water and the recycling of waste across campus facilities. Students are therefore influenced by direct engagement with sustainability issues as well as the knowledge imparted in the field or lecture hall by their teachers.

Nicky Parker, Recruitment Coordinator for the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University, told me how the university has made a number of tangible commitments to sustainability, led by their ‘Institute for Sustainability’:

“From the food we eat to the environment in which we live, the School advances knowledge through teaching and research. This extends across food science and human health, agricultural science and management, soil and environmental science, rural economy and society, food and product marketing. Sustainability is not a politically sharp catchphrase, it is a mindset that encompasses the entirety of global management.”

While RAU and Harper Adams are still seen by many as the highest profile ‘conventional’ institutions, both have worked hard to integrate ideas on sustainability and good practice into their programmes.

Harper provides a range of postgraduate qualifications in sustainable agriculture, encouraging students who graduate from their degree level courses to pursue further studies specifically relating to sustainable practices. Within the second year of their agriculture degree, students study units such as ‘Wastes, manures and renewables’, during which they learn, in detail, the impacts of climate change and various farm activities on the wider environment.

At the RAU, students are encouraged to take units in environmental management alongside their crop and livestock choices, getting them to engage with how environmental impacts can influence wider farm profitability.

Harper Adams student Georgie Gater-Moore explains how sustainability is pushed to the forefront of her learning experience:

“Harper Adams is very good at remaining up to date with current issues and opening dialogue with students with regards to the sustainability of farming practices. Topics such as pesticide and herbicide use are covered extensively, and as a result I feel comfortable that sustainability is a concern for graduates entering the industry. As a young farmer it is vital to remember that research and legislation can change how our farming practices are governed. By the time we are making the decisions, today’s ‘toolkit’ for food production may be non-existent.”

 

Are students today more aware of sustainability?

Clearly we have come a long way in accepting sustainability as a normal part of any good farming education.

Ian Grange, a Senior Lecturer in Environment and Countryside Management at the RAU, has noticed a change over the years in the way students think about sustainability. “I think the younger generation are more aware of the effects they might be having on the wider environment when it comes to farming, particularly via the financially incentivised agri-environment schemes that they often get involved with directly.”

This is a key point, as agri-environment schemes are a central part of the policy landscape. Without them, there might be less incentive for the agricultural colleges to teach students about environmental issues, or indeed incentive for students to attend lectures on the subject!

Simon Parker, Degree Programme Director for Agriculture at Newcastle University, has taught agriculture for over twenty years and told me how he has seen a step change in the way students think about sustainability:

“From a personal, anecdotal perspective I believe there is a greater awareness now of the need to consider our impact. Today’s students question the practices commonly advocated in the 1970s and 80s, and it is the current cohort that are addressing the legacy of prophylactic strategies [such as in the use of antibiotics] utilised by the previous generation. They have the foresight to query what we are doing because they realise it may have longer term implications, creating issues for their future. They may not always refer to it as sustainability, but they do perceive the issues being addressed now to be a consequence of previous unsustainable practice.”

 

What more could be done?

Clearly, there’s still a long way to go, but we should celebrate the effort that agricultural colleges and institutes are putting into encouraging engagement with sustainability issues. After all, if the farmers of the future don’t plan with a changing environment, economy and politics in mind, rural communities will be fundamentally changed and food security will be placed under greater threat.

From teaching organic farming methods on college farms to climate change issues in the lecture hall and the risks of soil degradation in the laboratory, most agricultural colleges are making great efforts to highlight the importance of sustainability.

However, there is still a need to embed sustainability throughout agricultural programmes. ‘Sustainable agriculture’ courses are only taught in their own right at MSc level and, while there are more sustainability focused teaching units now available at a lower level, it is still only part of the framework. Sustainable agriculture needs to be integrated throughout the entire learning system if all our future farmers are to embrace the sustainability agenda. Young people are a sponge for information and what they are told now will impact on how they farm in the future.

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