Sunday, March 13, 2011

What's in a Name? Why "Agriculture" is a dirty word at universities

So what is the relationship between the declining enrollment in agriculture faculties around North America, and the trend in dropping the word "agriculture" in many universities?  I think there is a direct relationship. My own alma mater, the University of British Columbia, did this a few years back, taking up the moniker "Land and Food Systems" instead. I was not impressed. Of course, the dean was a landscape architect so what could I expect. And BC is not a major agriculture province, with only 5% of the land base in the provincially zoned Agriculture Land Reserve. (But wouldn't that make agriculture even more important?)
But at least the degree, a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, or B.Sc (Agr) was left intact.
But, no. There was still an increased decline in interest in the agriculture/agroecology portion of the program. So out went the B.Sc.(Agr) and in came applied biology.
I think any student serious about studying agriculture probably headed to one of the prairie universities, or perhaps good old University of Guelph in Ontario.
Some universities who debated the name change, the declining enrollment, and held off on making that big change are thankful they didn't. In Nebraska, the name Agriculture was held onto proudly. The result? Enrollment is at an all time high. A 25% increase in proud-to-be-Agriculture students from 2000 to 20009.
When I attended UBC back in 1977 to 1981, we were all proud to be Aggies in our blue and yellow sweaters. We knew what was important, even back then. I remember the Dean coming back from meetings with the head of the University, worrying about our small but vital faculty. Once I left for graduate school, on the advice of my UBC profs, I heard about faculties losing positions to attrition. As profs retired, positions folded, eventually faculties folded. I was in the Department of Poultry Science, one of the first to fold into the Animal Science Department. The last professor hired when I was in my third or fourth year, Dr. Kim Cheng, is the only remaining Poultry professor left. I am sure, with all of the advances made in Poultry Science in the years leading up to the Poultry Dept.'s slow death, there were decision makers who probably thought everything that we needed to know about poultry production was already known, all the discoveries already discovered.....
Ok, let's fast forward to avian flu. To demands for cage-free systems that require more research in animal welfare to ensure poultry management recommendations are based on good research. To demands for feed systems that meet new feed regulations. Who is doing that? Is the university teaching that?
Or is it appealing to a market-based, student-as-consumer program, instead of the student being the product of the educational system.
This week I am going back to UBC as a mentor in the "Beyond the BSc" program - what should I tell them?? Stay tuned.........

CBC Commentary -

What’s in a name?

By Dave Schmidt
November 16, 2009
Food is a hot topic but agriculture, it seems, is not.
After decades of declining enrolment, the agriculture department at the University of British Columbia came up with an inspired solution: Stop using the word agriculture.
So down came the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences signs and up went ones reading Land and Food Systems. Ten years later, the department has 1,180 students – the third largest number in the country, even though its staff of 42 makes it the smallest of Canada’s eight ag faculties.
Food has proven popular, with most students enrolling in the Food Nutrition and Health program. Global Resource Systems also seems to resonate with potential students. But UBC’s third program – Agroecology – is a bust, having lost 90 per cent of its enrolment in the past six years.
Anything labeled ‘agri’ just isn’t seen as a good career path, says Art Bomke, one of the Agroecology professors.
Name game
So this summer, UBC sign-makers were busy again – taking down Agroecology signs and putting up Applied Biology ones. The switch came too late to make an impact on this year’s freshman class numbers but the university plans to market the renamed program heavily and expects enrollment to rebound.
While agriculture is not sexy, food and farming is. At the same time as switching its name to Land & Food Systems, UBC students revived its derelict farm at the south end of the sprawling campus and turned it into an urbanite’s version of farming: chickens scratching in the ground, small vegetable gardens, a few bees and a lot of trees. Now grown to 12-hectares, the Farm attracts 20,000 visitors a year, including 2,000 students involved in the 35 research projects and 50 courses connected to it. The Farm produces 200 different crops and Saturday market days attract as many as 700 people.
So what does all this tell us?
Well, urban people obviously are eager to spend time on a farm and they love local food. They’re even willing to get their hands in the dirt for a few minutes every week. But take agriculture seriously enough to make it a career? Not a chance!
For CBC commentary, I'm Dave Schmidt, a freelance agriculture writer in Chilliwack, B.C.

And another take on the issue from the US....

Agriculture is not a dirty word

This essay, written by Dr. Allen Levine, (pictured at left) dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minn., is reprinted from the May 28, 2009 issue of Science Magazine online version.

Agricultural science is ripe for a Renaissance. For too many years, the agriculture sciences have been disparaged in the science and education communities, perhaps because agronomy, soil science, plant pathology, and animal science use a problem-solving approach rather than simply seeking knowledge.

When science research funds are handed out—for example, in the federal stimulus bill—agriculture often gets left off the list. I suspect this is because policy-makers and some scientists see “agriculture” as synonymous with “agribusiness,” rather than as a purely scientific discipline, and they assume private funding will take care of agriculture-related research needs. Agricultural scientists at land-grant institutions do receive some research dollars from noncompetitive sources, but not all research is funded this way.

Adding insult to injury, the major U.S. science journals don’t devote specific sections or editors to agricultural research. Some schools of agriculture have taken the word “agriculture” out of their names, presumably to attract more students in a country where only 2% of the population farms. (It hasn’t worked: Enrollment in university agricultural science majors has dropped steadily nationwide since the early 1980s.)

In short, agricultural science has an image problem. Our disciplines are not considered relevant and, more disturbing, we’re not seen as a source of solutions to many of the world’s most pressing challenges, even though many of those challenges directly relate to agricultural science. That’s unfortunate, particularly in a world where people are starving or eating unsafe food, where climate change will affect every aspect of 21st-century life, and where new kinds of sustainable fuel are needed.

The urgency of these global issues—all of them related to the agricultural sciences—amplifies the need for an applied-science approach. Agricultural scientists can do amazing things when they combine their expertise and have access to the resources they need. Recently, scientists at an international conference in Mexico announced that they have found a wheat variety that is resistant to Ug99—a strain of stem rust that could affect up to 90% of the world’s wheat. Although the scientists have not completely eliminated the threat, it’s clearly a breakthrough with enormous implications.

Other recent signs also point to a renewed interest in and respect for agriculture. When the first lady plants a vegetable garden on the White House lawn for the first time in half a century, she’s sending a strong message: Food is important. Books about eating a sustainable, healthy diet top our best-seller lists. The National Gardening Association expects a 19% jump in the number of people growing at least some of their own food this year. Clearly, a growing number of Americans are interested in where their food comes from, even on a small scale.

The 2008 Farm Bill creates the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which will be headed by a distinguished scientist directly appointed by the president. A small thing, perhaps, but it elevates agriculture to a level of prominence along the lines of health and other sciences. The farm bill also increases funding for competitive grants in both basic and applied agricultural research, which will provide opportunities for advanced study.

Enrollment is up 16% since 2005 among college students in the professional associations that specialize in soil and crop sciences and agronomy, which suggests that today’s students are interested in learning more about agricultural and environmental issues. Job prospects also are good; the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment for agricultural and food scientists will be at least average overall and much higher than average in some specialties.

In the long run, does it really matter whether “agricultural scientists” are what we call the people who ensure a safe and plentiful food supply, clean water, and healthy soil? Maybe not, as long as this critical work is funded and accomplished. But as we move into a new era of shared accountability and responsibility, let’s keep in mind that agricultural sciences affect us all, and when agricultural science is thriving, our communities likely are thriving, too.

Contact information:
Allen S. Levine, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108–6074, USA, and Minnesota Obesity Center, Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Minneapolis, MN 55417, USA, e-mail:

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