The Great Debate

In the spirit of ‘history is written by the victors’ it gives me great pleasure to reflect on my participation in the “Every Australian child should be taught Agriculture at school” debate at the Waite Institute last week.

A big thanks to the losing team Team for the Affirmative from L to R  below
Associate Professor Amanda Able, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, University of Adelaide, Mr Ian Joseph, Chair, Agribusiness Council of Australia, Nick van den Berg, Second year student, Bachelor of Agricultural Science, University of Adelaide

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and hugs and kisses and bubbles for the victors Team for the Negative Professor Derek Leinweber, Head of School, Chemistry and Physics, University of Adelaide
and of course me (Lynne Strong, National Program Director, Art4Agriculture and Farmer) and Dr John Willison, School of Education, University of Adelaide

As you can see it was a great opportunity to dress up. Derek and John donned the garb of plumbers (and later subsistence farmers) whilst I got to play teacher and wield a big cane

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Moderator  Dr Paul Willis, of Catalyst fame and RiAus, reminded the audience that the participants may be arguing a case that did not necessarily reflect their views however in my case my argument for the negative certainly did reflect my views. As you can hear the debate in full here  I would like to use this post to take my views one step further to where I believe agriculture should be investing its time, energy and money.   

Before I do this I would like to say I agree wholeheartedly with a great point made by Speaker 1 for the affirmative Nick van den Berg who very wisely said “Every student should have a sound understanding of the world they live in and their impact on it“

Its over 50 years since I started school and at that time and for the next twelve years it was overwhelming acknowledged the greatest threats facing the world was the conflict in the middle east and fundamentalist religion. Yet I could have taken every single subject offered on the curriculum through my primary and secondary schooling and none of them would have even touched on anything that would have helped me or my peers deal with the consequences of either. I imagine 99% of school curriculums were the same and perhaps that is why they are both still as big a concern as they were fifty years ago. 

Sadly I don’t think many school curriculums today have the capacity or leeway to provide today’s children with the balance of soft and academic skills to allow them to function at the highest level in tomorrow’s world

As a farmer I know there is nothing more important for agriculture than a science literate population making informed choices about sustainable food and fibre production and consumption but reducing the diversity of the curriculum and making Agriculture a mandatory subject and forcing kids to study it is not the answer.

If our kids are going to get this message

  • THAT food is a topic of social and economic importance
  • THAT responsible agriculture production and food consumption are crucial to world stability
  • THAT farmers underpin our health wealth and happiness

Then we need to be ALL selling this message and selling it well and that will not be achieved by teaching agriculture in isolation. It can only be sold by ensuring the next generation has food literacy skills through teaching the interconnectedness of food, health and the environment and embedding it right across the curriculum.

So where should agriculture should be investing its time, energy and money?.

The second speaker for the affirmative Ian Joseph quite rightly said ‘if we continue to do what we have always done we are going to get what we have always got and that is going to lead to a lot of problems’. In this case I believe doing what we have always done is  agriculture’s compulsive drive to ask others to find solutions for us.

Yes the average age of our farmers is 57. So too is the average age of rural doctors and no-one is suggesting every child should study medicine at school. Forcing kids to study agriculture at school is not going to encourage kids to become farmers. How many students who go to schools where religion is compulsory become members of the clergy when they leave school? 

Agriculture, its time to recognise

  • It really is up to the agricultural sector itself to make the industry more attractive to young people and remove some of the barriers that prevent them from entering it more easily.
  • an aging workforce is endemic to rural and regional Australia. We firstly have to make rural and regional Australia attractive to our young people.
  • we have to have the best farmers in the world and we need to invest in them
  • there is no-one more qualified or inspiring to educate next gen about agriculture than our young people who are living the dream. We need to invest in our young people.

This is why I started Art4Agriculture which now has a proven track record of   

  1. Having a whole-of-agriculture collaborative vision, and encouraging a willingness by the sector to engage in two-way conversations with industry, government and community.
  2. Identifying and training a national network of articulate, well-educated, highly visible young people telling the positive stories of agriculture.
  3. Raising awareness of, and support for, modern farming practices
  4. Ensuring the community see farmers as innovative, caring and committed to supplying ethical, affordable and nutritious food and fibre to Australia and the world.
  5. Enhancing the image of farmers and farming and encouraging young people to consider careers in the agrifood sector.

Agriculture lets invest in what is working and leave our teachers to teach what fascinates them and if that just happens to be agriculture that’s heartening.  After all the word ‘educate’ means to bring forth out of not to stuff full of.