National Newswatch

Agriculture schools need to keep up with modern demands.

OTTAWA– Canada’s rate of post-secondary education enrolment in agricultural, forestry, fishing, and veterinary education is among the highest internationally but the demand for graduates continues to exceed the supply, says a study by RBC Economics.

Since bottoming out in 2003, admissions to agricultural schools have grown by more than 40 per cent—a sign of shifting attitudes toward the sector, the study says.

Canada ranks fourth after Japan, Italy and New Zealand for the percentage of post-secondary students enrolled in agricultural education programs. “There has been a fundamental shift in agricultural schools across Canada. As enrolment declined in the 1990s, many schools reassessed their curricula. To boost enrolment, they began to offer cross-disciplinary courses that might attract urban students less interested in working on a farm. This meant focusing on topics outside agricultural science, from food security to international development.

The approach worked.” To boost enrolment further, more needs to be done to integrate agriculture into mainstream programs, the study says. There are no full-time MBA programs and Canada’s top 10 business schools currently offer elective courses in agribusiness.

“Similarly, agricultural schools don’t do enough to promote a cross-disciplinary approach that integrates students in fields ranging from engineering to social science. These innovations will be critical to increasing enrolment and developing a stronger, better-resourced agriculture ecosystem.”

Some agricultural schools and colleges are transforming into the most cross-disciplinary centres in the country as they offer education in topics ranging from the financial incentives to promote carbon sequestration in soil to clean energy, the study said.

The Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at the University of Guelph even works with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to research methods of growing food on Mars.

While raising enrolment numbers, agricultural schools must also keep an eye on equipping students with the tools to put their skills to work, the study said. For example, engineering, business and computer science schools could develop more ag-related co-ops, case studies, and special project courses that would provide experiential education opportunities focused on food production.

Schools could also consider offering advisory services that can educate farmers on the best digital services, the most effective production practices, and the best ways to reduce costs and promote sustainability on their farms. “Just as the challenges facing each farm are unique, so too are the solutions for them.”

The schools could lead research into automated farm technology that could reduce the need for low-skilled labour, help farms reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and make the most of automation technology.

“Public investments represent the largest source of funding for Canada’s agriculture R&D at $450 million in 2020, but private in-house R&D lags by comparison at $108 million. And Canadian firms invest less on average in R&D than foreign firms.”

For Canada to become the world’s most reliable and sustainable food exporter, further investments will be needed, the study said. “R&D can spur growth in the sector, but distribution among producers will be critical. Though capital expenditure in agriculture has risen faster than in other Canadian industries over the last 15 years the largest investments have been among crop producers.

Canadian agricultural firms trail global competitors in R&D spending.”

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