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Equipping The Food System

The current times call for an urgent necessity to introduce Master’s level training in sustainable agriculture and the technologies that underpin it


The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of just-in-time food supply chains, the vulnerability of many communities to food insecurity and our reliance on migrant farm workers. But even before this latest crisis, it was clear that our current food system was unsustainable, facing a perfect storm of coinciding risks that demand truly interdisciplinary solutions.

Research from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield has shown that understanding this complexity is critical for building a sustainable food future, recognising the sources of pollution generated by our food, sustainability trade-offs and perverse outcomes embedded in the way we produce and consume our food.

Climate breakdown is already impacting farmers’ ability to grow staple crops, as floods, fires, droughts, heatwaves and storms become more frequent and intense. The soils that support all terrestrial life on earth are being eroded by deforestation, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and the climate crisis far faster than they can regenerate.

At the same time, the world demands more. The global population is estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050. Already, according to the World Health Organisation, 462 million adults are underweight – while 600 million are obese. The crisis of food security touches every corner of the world, every part of government and every academic discipline.

There is a real need for Masters’ level training in sustainable agriculture and the technologies that underpin it to help us overcome these challenges. We know there is a global skills gap in agriculture, for example as precision farming approaches develop and molecular genetics and biochemical methods are used to breed crops and fight emerging pests and diseases, there is an urgent need to future-proof the workforce experienced in these cutting-edge technologies.

The complexity of the food system opens many avenues for students wanting to develop careers in agriculture, sustainability and technology to help meet these challenges.

Students in such a course will develop a strong understanding of the fundamentals of crop production, such as adaptation to climate and other environmental changes, crop management techniques for sustainability, long term improvements in productivity and learn about the advanced techniques used in crop and soil science.

Research in areas such as crop science, biotechnology and breeding, agricultural ecology in a changing world, soil science, issues in global food security, advanced analytical techniques in agricultural research, scientific skills and project management opens doors to careers in a range of public, private, and third sector organisational contexts.

As precision farming approaches develop, the agricultural industry is becoming increasingly high skilled, calling for trained graduates to become future leaders in the agronomy sector. There is also a global skills gap in the application of cutting-edge technologies to agricultural systems.

Extensive discussions with industry partners have revealed a dire necessity for training in sustainable agriculture at a specialised level to get a grasp of the concepts that defines agronomy and agricultural consultancy sectors.

Studying sustainable agricultural technology equips graduates for careers in agricultural extension, farming, agricultural and environmental policy, soil science and crop science as well as graduates being well equipped to pursue PhDs in soil science, crop science, microbiology or food supply and beyond.

The writers are director and communications officer, Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield, UK, respectively