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Why Higher Agricultural Education Matters For SDGs in Southeast Asia

Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash.

While doing my Ph.D. in the 1990s one of my personal concerns was typical of a young Canadian environmentalist exposed almost daily to unsustainable logging of pristine old growth rainforests. Corporations seemed to care little about impacts of their practices on wildlife, biodiversity, fisheries or watersheds amid poor government oversight, inadequate regulations and bad laws.

There were some small victories. A few politicians and innovative companies began to engage indigenous communities; support national or provincial parks as protected areas, do selective harvesting, and promote some value-added wood processing to save local jobs instead of exporting raw logs outside Canada.

I believe such modest successes came partly from education and public awareness campaigns to influence the policy agenda, union leaders, loggers and corporate behaviour.

But as a city boy I did not know much then about agriculture or food systems, or gave much thought about related environmental concerns. Even though I did environmental education workshops and courses as a graduate student at the Faculty of Education, in the University of British Columbia, none of my education professors taught about agricultural issues.

Education makes a difference!

Things began to gradually change for me when, as part of a Canadian NGO delegation in 1992, I attended the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or “Earth Summit” in Rio, Brazil. To prepare and in follow-up I began learning more about grass-root community organising in Canada and partnerships with Southern countries and that education or critical thinking about development with empowerment for social change and environmental protection, really can make a difference.

Later I also experimented with small-scale farming in rural Canada, then worked as a staff social scientist (education specialist) in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) with partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, I learned that historically even much of the CGIAR research with associated education-training had poorly addressed environmental concerns. During my time there, I believe the CGIAR still needed to integrate or mainstream agro-environmental education into all its centers and programs.

Thai farmer pulling a hand cart down a field road. Near Khon Kaen, Thailand.

Is agricultural education better integrated today compared to yesterday?

One key outcome of UNCED 1992 was Agenda 21, the first comprehensive global action plan that included, to my delight then, Chapter 36, “Promoting Education, Public Awareness And Training.” While this commitment by governments had all the gaps and flaws expected in a major international compromise agreement, the idea of “education for sustainable development” since became an important part of global discourse and action world-wide.

On the other hand, I came to see that in retrospect, and with a more critical eye, that Agenda 21 Chapter 36 problematically did not say anything about agriculture.

This was, and still is, a significant gap in global policy over two decades later. Mainstreammodern” industrial-scale, mono-crop agriculture has since intensified causing many global environmental problems: pollution, desertification, deforestation, drought, depleting aquifers, biodiversity loss and land degradation.

Today agriculture (including methane-emitting livestock) may be the single greatest contributor to climate change, from 20 to 30 percent or more of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, depending on which agri-food value chain parts are counted and measured in which countries. More conservative estimates suggest that agriculture, forestry and other land-use (AFOLU) together, account for at least one-fifth of global GHG emissions. Whatever the precise figures, bad agriculture practices can adversely impact terrestrial and marine environments and climate in a multitude of ways.

Moreover, by 2016, this agrochemical-dependent industrial, market-driven agri-food system still had not provided food or nutritional security for some 815 million of the world’s mostly poor rural people. This includes over 70 million people or 11.5 % of Southeast Asia’s population who are undernourished or food insecure.

At the same time, many positive signs appeared in the 25 years since the first Earth Summit and Agenda 21. Hundreds more declarations and action plans later, we progressed to the widespread adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, now guiding most governments and the global agenda until 2030.

But even the SDGs are fragmented and inadequate to the immense task at hand. SDG2 “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture,especially if linked to SDG4 – “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” are noble objectives (in theory). But the SDGs still do not adequately address agriculture or education together with no related targets or indicators.

SDG2 says nothing about education (except a potential link in a brief nod to research and extension). It does not even define sustainable agriculture. So, who decides what SA is or how it should be practiced? One job of the university is to research, think and teach critically about such concepts and help students, decision-makers and farmers make good choices based on lessons from good science.

But sadly, SDGs have no clear mandate for such work. SDG4 says nothing about agricultural education. Integrating many SDGs, mainstreaming of agricultural sustainability (especially through more agro-ecological learning) particularly in universities or other higher education institutions, should be a priority in curricula, teaching and research. But as some studies, such as for Thailand, have demonstrated, it is not.

Another simple illustration of this policy vacuum and practical problem at a regional level is the ASEAN Environmental Education Action Plan (AEEAP) 2014-2018.  This principal guiding framework for Southeast Asia also has nothing to say about agriculture.

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

HESA-SIANI Expert Group working to reform higher agricultural education

Yet sustainable agriculture issues and agriculture education challenges are profound for all levels of learning but especially for higher education. They should be part of all types of environmental education, especially in agriculture universities and extension services.

Instead many HEI’s are complicit in, or actively support, agrochemical-intensive, mono-crop farming, often ignoring the devastating environmental impacts of agriculture. They do not adequately support alternative approaches in teaching, curricula or research.

For example, organic agriculture is growing in popularity, but only 0.2% of Thailand’s agriculture land area is certified organic. The challenge is also illustrated in a study I published with a colleague about Thailand’s extension system. In this study, the results revealed how public–private partnerships use corporate advice, technical support, human resources and learning activities that encouraged or normalised agrochemical use and dependency, rather than promoting a mitigation approach to agrochemicals.

These are the challenges some of us have been recently debating, studying and writing about in our “Expert Group on Higher Education for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in Southeast Asia.” Do you share the same vision as us or are experiencing this from the ground? Perhaps you have innovative ideas for how to better integrate SA and AE? Do please get in touch with us!

We are around 16 academic representatives from each of the 8 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Member States with strong Agriculture-based economies (i.e. Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam). We are working together to analyse, strengthen and reform higher agriculture education for a more sustainable South East Asia.

Dr. Wayne Nelles is a Canadian Visiting Scholar at Chulalongkorn University School of Agricultural Resources (CUSAR) where he is currently Regional Coordinator for the SIANI Expert Group on Higher Education for Sustainable Agriculture (HESA) and Food Systems in Southeast Asia.