How education is solving the ‘wicked problems’ of agriculture

“We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking we used in creating them.” – Albert Einstein

A ‘wicked problem’ is defined as a social or cultural issue that can be difficult or even impossible to solve for one, or even a combination, of these four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge; the number of people and opinions involved; the huge economic burden; plus the fact that these issues are often interwoven with other common problems facing the global community.

In the midst of global connectivity and internationalisation, these are problems that threaten each and every one of us, as well as the volatile environment that we all inhabit. Finding a way to tackle the nature of the wickedness affecting the universal business of agriculture in particular, is a major concern for the field’s most qualified graduates, and experts around the world.

But what exactly are the wicked, intrinsically-linked problems facing global agriculture?

1. Climate Change

Agriculture and fisheries are extremely dependent on the ideal climate conditions, but even trying to comprehend the extent of the effects of climate change on our global food supply, with everything that’s involved, can seem an incredibly complex task.

“Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) can be beneficial for some crops in some places. But to realize these benefits, nutrient levels, soil moisture, water availability, and other conditions must also be met,” notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Changes in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods could pose challenges for farmers and ranchers. Meanwhile, warmer water temperatures are likely to cause the habitat ranges of many fish and shellfish species to shift, which could disrupt ecosystems.”

The EPA concludes that overall, the effects of climate change could make it really difficult to grow crops, raise animals and catch fish in the same ways and places that we have before, and the sector calls for innovative graduates to tame the harrowing effects of global warming with state-of-the-art technology.

2. Food Security

Today, the world hosts a population of 7.4 billion people, but with that number expected to swell to 9 billion by the year 2050, global demand for food is bound to increase dramatically.

Experts believe the international food crisis of 2007-2008 was a sinister sign of things to come, with the cost of staple food all around the world flying through the roof. According to Global Food Security (GFS), the price of wheat throughout this period soared by 130 percent; sorghum rose by 87 percent; and rice by 74 percent – inflation that caused riots in no less than 36 countries.

“More people die each year from hunger and malnutrition than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined,” notes the GFS. “And the World Bank estimates that cereal production needs to increase by 50% and meat production by 85% between 2000 and 2030 to meet [global] demand.”

International higher education providers are a major force in the fight for food security. Plant researchers are constantly hunting for the best ways to bolster food production, and design new plants for innovative purposes. The School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland, for example, is recognised as one of Australia’s premier plant science research, training and education universities. Researchers from the school have recently produced the world’s first metabolically engineered sugarcane plants to produce high value sugars – something that could really change the game in the global food security battle.

In short, the world desperately needs a food source that is reliable, sustainable and constant. It is therefore the mission of qualified agriculture graduates to uncover the best way to keep up with global supply and demand.

3. Disease Control

Plant pests and diseases can be intensely damaging when it comes to our global food supply, causing huge losses for the world’s agricultural workforce and, in a kind of snowball effect, threatening international food security.

“The spread of transboundary plant pests and diseases has increased dramatically in recent years,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “Globalization, trade and climate change, as well as reduced resilience in production systems due to decades of intensification, have all played a part.”

Transboundary plants and pests have the potential to cross nations and borders, eventually infecting the world in true epidemic proportions. Outbreaks of locusts, armyworm, banana diseases and wheat rusts, for example, have caused huge losses to crops and pastures in the past.

Again, researchers within the UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences and research have spurred colossal leaps in the fight for agricultural disease control, recently undertaking the world’s first field trials of genetically modified pineapples to improve disease resistance.

As more and more resources are put into improving our agricultural practices, more and more graduates are needed; and not just in rural areas, but in cities too. “Today, agriculture provides the livelihoods for around one-third of the world’s labour force and generates 2-3% of global value added,” note the writers of Urbanization and implications for food and farming.

Australia in particular has fast become a global hub for food production and supply, with around two-thirds of its total land mass entirely dedicated to farming. Approximately 90 percent of this land is reserved solely for cattle grazing. While the majority of food produced in Australia is exported around the world, farmers currently supply around 93 percent of the food consumed in Australia. What does all this mean?

It means that agricultural graduates from universities like UQ, and many others in the nation, are making giant waves in the crusade against the wicked issues affecting global agriculture.

This article is sponsored by the University of Queensland (UQ), one of Australia’s leading research and teaching institutions. UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences delivers knowledge, skills and research in the areas of agriculture, agribusiness, food, plants, soils and animals. It gives its students access to exceptional opportunities by engaging with experienced teaching staff and industry leaders. Graduates of the School are highly sought after professionals that help investigate solutions to world issues such as climate change, food security, biosecurity and the protection of endangered wildlife.

All images courtesy of University of Queensland.

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