Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World

National Research Council, 2009

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Today’s global agricultural enterprise stretches beyond the farm to encompass hundreds of thousands of entities involved in the production and distribution of food and other agricultural products worldwide. Together with the public institutions that regulate and support them, this highly diverse enterprise generates a level of economic activity of staggering magnitude and breadth. It is supported by a workforce that includes not only farmers, but also an enormous array of other skilled professionals, including scientists, seed suppliers, food chemists, ethanol producers, packaging engineers, food safety experts, risk assessors, grocery suppliers, and many others.

This agricultural workforce must constantly respond to changes in the physical, economic, and social environment surrounding agriculture. For example, meeting food demands of the expanding human population is complicated by a new demand for biofuels. In addition, as climate change alters the planet’s physical and ecological conditions, growers and distributors are under increasing pressure to adjust their practices and take steps to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture must adapt to a continually changing landscape of health and nutrition issues, consumer preferences, national security concerns, environmental impacts, and many other factors.

Because agriculture is affected by so many factors, its participants must always be prepared to react, to adapt, and to think ahead. Is the next generation of leaders in agriculture prepared to address the increasing and ever-changing demands on agricultural systems? How can the future agricultural workforce be recruited and cultivated?

Colleges and universities with undergraduate programs in agriculture must undergo a significant transformation to foster the agricultural workforce of tomorrow. Such institutions must position themselves at the cutting-edge and offer students the opportunity to learn about the complexities of agriculture, grapple with its emerging challenges, and find their opportunity to contribute as leaders and participants. This report, authored by a committee convened by the National Research Council, considers the evolving agricultural enterprise and identifies opportunities for undergraduate programs to more effectively support a flexible, well-prepared workforce.