by Countryside Alliance

A UK university has launched a pioneering school aimed at teaching existing and future farmers how to make farming more sustainable. This article was first published in My Countryside magazine.

When Harper Adams University announced their plans to launch a School of Sustainable Food and Farming, the first question on many people’s lips was “what does that involve?” The answer is not a simple one. According to Professor Michael Lee, Deputy Vice Chancellor at Harper Adams University, the aim of the School is to “empower the current and future agri food and farming sectors to realise the transition to net zero, within a sustainable future.”

What that means in reality is working out how we will be farming in the future – in five, 10 or 20 years’ time – and then ensuring that people working within the sector have the necessary skills to farm in a way that is at one with nature, while still producing high quality food and produce.

The school is a virtual one in that its main hub will be the existing Harper Adams campus, and the work will be delivered through four main pillars. The first concerns new talent: that is, current and future Harper Adams students. Professor Lee explains: “It’s about how we develop our graduates to ensure that they are fit for the future. A lot of organisations are good at history lessons; teaching students about how agriculture used to be, or how we currently farm. We need to know how we’re going to farm in the future.”

With that in mind, Harper Adams is undergoing “the biggest curriculum review that we have ever undertaken”. The School of Sustainable Food and Farming will feed into all of the Harper Adams courses and departments, ensuring that the concept of turning agriculture into a net benefit, rather than an environmental impact, is bedded into the curriculum. The second pillar revolves around upskilling the current workforce. “We can’t wait for our graduates to hit the road; we have to ensure that the sector has those skills now,” says Professor Lee. This will be through a combination of online and in-person short courses, apprenticeships, workshops, seminars and conferences which can provide agricultural workers with the knowledge they require to help the transition to net-zero.

Research, and the knowledge gaps that currently exist, form the school’s third pillar. Part of this includes a commitment that Harper Adams has made to be net-zero on the university’s mixed crop and livestock farm by 2030. The best way to find out how to transition towards sustainable production and net-zero “is to do it ourselves” he says. The school also has three steering partners: Morrisons, McDonalds and the NFU. As well as contributing resources towards the school – such as placements for students, in addition to contributing financially – they are providing the school with guidance as to what a major retailer, restaurant chain and farming community needs. But while they are helping to drive the direction the school takes, “they have been very clear, and we have been very clear, that everything we do through the school is for the wider community”, says Professor Lee. “It’s not for the steering partners, it’s for everyone.”

Where the steering partners can also help is in pillar three. Thanks to their involvement the School has a network of other farms to help with their research, “trailblazer farms in the Morrisons or McDonald’s supply chain, and of course the NFU. It is all about the research needed to deliver the net zero and sustainability parameters,” he explains.

The fourth and final pillar surrounds policy; ensuring through discussion with Defra and George Eustice that policy-makers are aware of the challenges that rural communities are facing, and creating an informed dialogue around the issues in agriculture. “Any farmer who has a clear view of the future of the farming sector knows that they have to concentrate on their environmental carbon footprint, on reducing damaging inputs, and focusing on a more biological approach to delivering high quality yield and production,” says Professor Lee. “The sector is changing, and Harper Adams is here to support and help provide the skills, the information and the research needed. That’s exactly our role; to support the farming community.” One thing that is vitally important here is the ‘food’ part of the school’s name. With questions still unanswered about what the UK’s post-Brexit farming subsidy system will look like, many people in the farming community have raised concerns that food production could take a back seat. “I think we would be extremely naïve if we think the UK can become one big national park and offset our emissions in agriculture to imports,” says Professor Lee. “After all, we can produce high quality food with very high levels of welfare and lower methane and carbon footprints than most countries.” As he points out, greenhouse gases don’t recognise national borders. “It’s a quick win for government to lower the UK carbon footprint by reducing our agricultural side but that would be extremely naïve in terms of the total impact we’re going to have on global warming.”

As a small, specialist university, Harper Adams has the expertise across various sectors to provide the research and information needed, whether that be in the engineering or disease management. But equally, Professor Lee is keen that the school works with other institutes and universities, rather than working “in a silo”. In that vein, the university has recently become one of the founding members of the UK-wide Agricultural Universities Council which will agree on joint agricultural research priorities, with the intention of tackling the various challenges within the farming sector. “The idea of bringing together agricultural universities is extremely valuable. Working together, we can find solutions to these problems; we can be greater than the sum of our parts.”

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