The question for agricultural colleges is no longer, “who wants to be a farmer? “, but rather how can we train professionals to spearhead an integrated land management strategy necessary to feed Europe beyond peak oil? Musings from an ex-software company director who has gone back to college to learn about sustainable agriculture.

I’m a student of Sustainable Land Management at Hadlow College in the UK. What’s more, I’m doing it at a time when it sounds good and everyone says ‘that’s the right thing to be doing’. But few people yet appreciate what sustainability means for future society.  The UK government is paying to educate more people to understand how things must change, but they are still intent on an economy based on continual growth and increasing demand.

Many students of sustainability are damming of political processes and motives. My contention is that Sustainability courses should square up to this, necessarily including politics and how to influence policy.

Since outlining this argument, I attended a student debate about the implications of Peak Oil, chaired by Dr Howard Lee, director of Sustainability programmes at Hadlow. The debate inevitably moved beyond Peak Oil and Dr. Lee crystallised a salient point. It’s not enough to understand the principles of sustainability. “Effective sustainability is all about how to wrap it all up in a sweet enough way for people to swallow it, then the only way to make progress is for ‘believers’ to get inside government and stay there without forgetting what they have learnt and believe in”.

Sustainable Agriculture still not sexy enough for students

So, who do we need on the inside? Looking specifically at Sustainable Agriculture, there’s a perception that all the ‘smart’ people (for smart you can read ‘money-focussed people not already involved in farming’) have been giving agriculture a wide berth for years. Interest in it as a career has plummeted. Perhaps it’s been 20 plus years of bad news on the TV, in the UK it has certainly come across strongly that there is no future in it.

This avoidance of agriculture as a career has led to a raft of closures amongst traditional agricultural colleges. Hadlow College, however, has kept going. It seems to have done so by creating its own niche, by concentrating on sustainability.  Hadlow has gone on to develop a wide range of related degrees that extend its appeal way beyond ‘straight’ Agriculture and Horticulture. One such is Sustainable Land Management.

Undoubtedly, the buzzword around Hadlow is ‘sustainability’. All the academics like the word, but what about prospective students? “No”, appears to be the answer.

It seems neither ‘agriculture’ nor ‘sustainability’ push buttons for the school-leavers. That worries me. Until these are careers that are seen as being important and, critically, are perceived as offering enough money to provide a rewarding career for bright and ambitious school-leavers, we’ll not change this. And, no-one in government seems in a rush to change this.

Target: increase food production in the UK by 50% by 2030

So, why are Sustainable Land Managers interested in agriculture? After all, we’ve got plenty of other things to do like plan waste management, fret about global issues and interpret various environmental problems from satellite imagery?

There is this struggle for land use between agriculture, conservation and leisure. High input farming and the fact that food has never been cheaper in real terms, nor more varied. Imports throughout the year have also helped sever peoples understanding of their dependence on the local land. Most of the (urban) UK population now has the impression that farmers don’t care about the environment. Moreover, they believe more land could be put to leisure or wildlife uses for their pleasure and conscience respectively.

If the fundamental premise of Sustainable Land Management has any foot in the real world, high input farming may only survive one more generation. A controlled transition is already behind schedule. Low input, low output is likely to have to be the end-game and the voters are going to feel the consequences.

Whilst everyone lauds the concept of sustainability, the practical reality is very different – and reaching a sustainable, suitably ‘sweetened’ compromise is increasingly remote.

The UK government is still grappling with the scale of the approaching dilemma. Late in 2008, it approached farmers and academics to help it plan ahead and invited answers to questions that included: “How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?”1

Research in agriculture has declined and, more importantly, not investigated the issues highlighted below (consumer trends, urban food security, organic waste streams, communal food production, micro livestock, domestic water harvesting etc.). There will need to be an urgent injection of funds to help us understand and develop a new skills base. New research and development will need to be rapidly outreached into the farming sector, with widespread provision of relevant training. Evidence to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, submitted by Dr.Howard Lee.

What can be read between the lines is the main challenge to the teaching of sustainability. Doubling current production using sustainable methods looks impossible. We await the government’s conclusions.

Re-training for a low-input low-output future

Fortunately, some of the leading lights in farming now agree with the need to start working towards a lower input, lower output future. Probably, much to the dismay of many fellow farmers. The National Farmers Union has suggested that food production should not be increased and that a significant investment is made in Research and Development as well as education of farmers and the public.

On a generational basis, the regime of high input farming is relatively new. But, attitudes amongst incoming Hadlow ‘International Agriculture’ students from UK farming backgrounds suggest that ‘sustainability’ is a distraction. Their instincts are still to get on their nice big tractors and plough more per day than anyone else. Hadlow is challenging these instincts.

If Sustainable Agriculture is the way it must go, then there’s a need for complete change of agricultural policy and a re-education of a generation of farmers as well as the general public. This is the biggest challenge for students and teachers of sustainability.

Sustainable courses such as those at Hadlow are helping build up a head of steam and a resource of people able to help the transition. We need to wise up to how we will force change – not just what we would do if we are given the chance.

Richard Evans

Student of Sustainable Land Management Programme,

Hadlow College, UK

1 Enquiry submitted by Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.