OPINION PIECE: Funding must continue for farm education in schools

Our children know where their food comes from, right?  Maybe not.

According to a 2012 study conducted by the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER), 45 per cent of primary school students surveyed did not identify bread, cheese or bananas as farm products. 

And we all love our farmers right?  That’s certainly my experience.  But it may depend on our age.  We Baby Boomers and those older have a better sense of where our food comes from and appreciate the hard work our farmers put in to producing the food we need. 

But if Millennials don’t know where their food comes from, they are unlikely to develop the same level of respect for farmers that we oldies typically hold.  Indeed, according to the ACER survey, 40 per cent of students believe farming damages our environment.  It’s a guess, but 30 years ago that figure would probably have been no more than 5 per cent.

Does any of this matter?  Yes.

We must repair the disconnection between our young consumers and the agriculture sector.  Australia is experiencing unprecedented levels of obesity and 22 per cent of children are now overweight or obese.  Surveys indicate that only 5 per cent of children eat the recommended daily amount of vegetables. Many will blame the parents, fair enough.  But today’s children are tomorrow’s mums, dads and leaders.  Education holds the key and food production needs a more prominent presence in our school curricular.

The right school curriculum will also play a role in ensuring our food security.  There are two reasons.

First, it will address agriculture’s worsening workforce shortages.  A better understanding of the sector and the increasingly interesting, rewarding and technical jobs available will draw people to the sector.  At the graduate level, supply is falling while demand grows.  It’s hardly surprising given 50 per cent of the students in the ACER survey did not think science and food and fibre production went hand-in-hand.  55 per cent do not associate innovation or IT with agriculture.

At the lower skills level, we are becoming increasing reliant on foreign labour in regional areas marked by high unemployment.  It is reasonable to assume that a reluctance to work in agriculture and food manufacturing reflects in part a perception life-long and rewarding job opportunities are limited.

Young people thinking about career choices have a good idea what lawyers, nurses, teachers and engineers do and which education pathway to take to become one.  But there appears to be too little awareness of what farmers do: the variety of the tasks or which education or training pathways will take them to a successful career in agribusiness.

The possibly most alarming ACER study finding is the perception farming hurts our environment.  This is the second point and involves a bit of chicken and egg.

We can’t convince students farming does not harm the environment if it does.  While great improvements have been achieved, too few farmers have embraced best practice and sustainable farming methods.  Future farmers will be better informed but how well will be in large part determined by the quality of our school education and the extent to which we teach them about food production and related sciences.

Leading the push for a greater prominence for agriculture in our schools curricular is a little known but quality not-for-profit organisation called the Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia (PIEFA).  Established with the support of the Federal Labor Government in 2009, PIEFA successfully pushes education kits and learning tools into our schools while lobbying for strengthened curricular.

Sadly, the Turnbull Government is about to pull the meagre $75,000 it provides to PIEFA each year.  It’s a grave error.

This opinion piece was first published on Farm Online on Monday, 23 July 2018.


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