Back to basics: Is agricultural education the way forward?
Agricultural schools have an important role to play in today’s world. Source: Shutterstock

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and entrepreneurship curriculums have seen a push in many schools worldwide, but should agricultural education be given more prominence?

There’s no denying the importance of general education as it lays the foundation for a child’s future, but the agriculture curriculum can also equip students with practical life skills that can help them in both their future personal and professional lives.

Concerns over climate change and its adverse effects on food security and environmental degradation are rising. For instance, extreme weather changes, such as heatwaves and water scarcity, are negatively affecting crop production. The United Nations (UN) has warned that climate change is driving global hunger. 

“The number of extreme climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 of these events occurring every year during the period of 1990–2016. These disasters harm agricultural productivity of major crops such as wheat, rice and maize causing food price hikes and income losses that reduce people’s access to food,” claims the UN.

Reports suggest that a growing number of companies and investors are buying farmlands across the world as they become increasingly valuable resources. Over time, growing crops and raising animals and aquaculture can become more challenging as drastic weather changes increase animals’ vulnerability to diseases, among other things, notes the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a 2016 report

Meanwhile, quoting FAO, the Worldwatch Institute said climate change will affect the availability and quality of land, soil and water resources. These are later reflected in crop performance, which causes prices to rise.

Learning outside the classroom 

Students stand to gain a lot from learning in the outdoors. Source: Shutterstock

While agricultural programmes are widely available at the tertiary level, they’re even less common at the primary and secondary level of education, depending on your country of residence. 

In the US, the National Association of Agricultural Educators notes: “Agricultural education teaches students about agriculture, food and natural resources. Through these subjects, agricultural educators teach students a wide variety of skills, including science, math, communications, leadership, management and technology.”

Agricultural schools are available in various countries, including in the US, Australia, South Korea and the UK. They don’t just prepare students for careers in agriculture, despite exposing students to topics relating to the field. 

For instance, many students of James Ruse Agricultural High School – a selective high school in New South Wales, Australia – has been dubbed a “genius factory”. Students here consistently produce outstanding Higher School Certificate results while many have not only gone on to further their studies in agricultural sciences, but also dominate the state’s top medicine, law and engineering schools, said The Sydney Morning Herald

Some have even gone on to study at prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Berkeley. 

The school’s website notes that “Agriculture is a compulsory, accelerated course for Years 7 to 10 and is optional for all students in Years 11”, and that it aims to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of agricultural enterprises and the practices and skills required in producing plant and animal products.

“Students will develop skills in the effective management of sustainable production and marketing practices that are environmentally and socially responsible.”

Its Principal, Rachel Powell, said: “The school farm is itself a working farm and has a range of intensive and extensive farming enterprises which support the curriculum delivered at Ruse. We use a range of environmentally sustainable practices.”

This includes a free-range egg production system and meat chicken production, while their orchards grow navel oranges and peaches. 

Over in the UK, Bredon School is set on a working farm where all students up to the end of Year 9 can spend timetabled lessons on the farm, helping out with maintenance, taking on planting and allotment duties, seeing to seasonal tasks, cleaning, as well as assisting with the feeding and welfare of the animals, notes the school’s website.

Making room for agriculture education in schools 

Where does food come from? Source: Shutterstock

Agricultural or farm schools have plenty to teach children outside the classroom, such as the importance of being responsible and persevering when caring for crops and livestock. It may also help them develop an affinity for nature and animals, exposing them to potential careers they might otherwise never considered. 

Unsurprisingly, even the International Labour Organization (ILO) notes that the agricultural sector offers untapped employment opportunities, while The World Bank notes that agriculture is crucial to economic growth.

These hands-on learning experiences teach students where their food comes from and how it gets to the table. According to research, children who grow some of their own develop a deeper connection to food; this can lead them to lead healthier lives as such children tend to stick to better diets.

The knowledge and ability to grow our own food (i.e. producing plant and caring for livestock) is critical to our survival and yet, is an area of study that gains little prominence in schools. 

Coupled with the need to meet future food demands of the planet’s growing population, agriculture will play an increasingly crucial role in society. Realistically, while not all students will harbour interests to pursue agricultural careers, foundation knowledge in the field can still prove to be a practical area of study for their future.

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