Mapping the road ahead for courses and careers in the food economy

Mapping the road ahead for courses and careers in the food economy


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"This is a sector that employs 14% of the UK's workforce, and is crying out for new entrants with good technical and graduate level skills."

During the recent Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Professor Danielle George explained some of the latest innovations in 'smart' devices and how we are becoming increasingly connected with the technology around us. I was interested to find that Professor George, an expert on deep space listening devices, has previously worked on instrumentation to measure water usage in agriculture, just one example of how farming and food systems are also rapidly becoming 'smarter'. And that set me thinking about how such developments could impact upon future requirements for those entering a career in the agri-food sector.

Hopefully, if you happen to be a budding scientist or engineer, the news that technology is helping us address fundamental issues in food production might also cause you to think twice about the stereotypical image of the farming and food sectors. For too long, the evidence has shown that young people, and often their teachers and parents, regard these sectors as difficult to enter, low paid, and lacking parity of esteem with 'the professions'. What they may not appreciate, in part because the industry has not yet done enough to capture the imagination of young people, but also because of a general disconnection between the producers and many consumers of food, is that this is a sector that employs 14% of the UK's workforce, and that it is crying out for new entrants with good technical and graduate level skills.

Furthermore, it is a highly innovative sector that has to respond rapidly to consumer demand and preferences, whilst improving its efficiency and meeting its responsibilities to better manage the environment. So, the modern farmer needs to understand scientific principles in crop, horticultural and livestock production; deal with challenging engineering solutions; and also be an astute businessperson capable of managing aspects of the futures markets and the marketing of their products as much as effectively managing teams of people and their relationship with regulatory agencies.

"The Government has identified agri-science as one of the Eight Great Technologies that support UK science strengths and business capabilities."

Further along the food chain the roles played by graduates can encompass anything from new product development, food technology and food engineering, supply chain logistics and food safety to marketing, sales, and many other aspects of running a business. And that is before you even start to consider associated careers in research and development and business operations of companies that supply or support the food production sector, such as those that create animal feeds, provide veterinary services and offer environmental, land management or agronomic advice, grain trading operations, insurance and even specialist banking.

Last month the UK Commission for Employment and Skills published a report on the 40 top jobs of the future. Farming was firmly on the list, and the report noted how the industry is, 'amongst the most progressive in the country when it comes to embracing new technology'. Some of these innovations are already taking hold, with examples including robotic milking parlours and drones that can remotely monitor crops and livestock across a farm. A US-based analysis, due out early this year, will describe a smart-farming ecosystem where, in the future, wireless connectivity, sensors, machine to machine solutions, big data systems and smartphone apps will all have their place in farming practice. We will need highly skilled hardware and software engineers to deliver and extend this ecosystem, opening up opportunities for advanced system development and related careers that would not have been readily associated with the agri-food sector only a few years ago.

"We need new skills and new talents to help shape the changes that lie ahead."

The Government has identified agri-science as one of the Eight Great Technologies that support UK science strengths and business capabilities. Of those eight, another five (Advanced Materials, Big Data, Satellites, Robotics & Autonomous Systems and Synthetic Biology) are all connected in some way with the agri-food system, such that many more opportunities are likely to open up for those embarking on university courses in agri-food or agri-tech subjects. The national Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, through its planned Centres for Innovation, will also contribute to developing new career options, not least in areas such as precision farming, agri-informatics and even 'farmaceuticals', where skills in engineering, data analysis and biological sciences gained from other courses can be applied in agri-food businesses.

This is why, last year, the National Centre for Universities and Business launched a Food Economy Task Force, to look at the skills, research and knowledge exchange priorities for the future, and what can be done to broaden awareness of the opportunities that exist today for careers in the agri-food system. That system is rapidly developing and could even be said to be being reinvented for the second machine age.

"Last year, NCUB launched a Food Economy Task Force, to look at the skills, research and knowledge exchange priorities for the future."

Late last year a Harvard Business Review article on the 'Internet of Things' featured a case study on farm automation and the way that new technologies are redefining and extending the boundaries of the agricultural machinery sector. In just a few years some of our traditional industry sectors may no longer look that familiar, which is why we need new skills and new talents to help shape the changes that lie ahead. That is also why the Food Economy Task Force report, to be launched in March, will play an important role in highlighting what we must do to ensure that we continue to provide a safe and secure food system whilst also contributing UK university and business expertise to the challenge of global food security that faces us all.

The NCUB Food Economy Task Force aims to develop a more competitive and sustainable agri-food sector in the UK through collaboration between business, higher education and other research bodies. The Task Force is chaired by former Sainsbury's CEO Justin King and Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire Quintin McKellar and its members include leaders from across the UK Food Economy.

Dr David Llewellyn is Vice-Chancellor at Harper Adams University and part of NCUB's Food Economy Task Force Steering Group.

Food Economy Task Force Reports: 
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