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4 November 2019

Switching the gears of the food system needs a different approach to agricultural education

Photo: Thomas Lambert / Unsplash.

Agroecology is the new black of agricultural development. However, most of the current higher agricultural education is tailored to economic and industrial needs, indirectly supporting large-scale high-input food production, where the main goal is to learn how to minimize the costs and maximize the profit. Such approaches rarely consider sustainable land use, biodiversity, nutrition or poverty reduction. It also hardly ever encourages students to learn from farmers, indigenous peoples or local communities and does not integrate human rights-based thinking.

Meanwhile, it is essential to pack agricultural education with all the three components of sustainability – social, ecological and economic – if we are to switch the gears of our food system into an agroecological mode.

MSc agroecology programs in Sweden, Ethiopia and Uganda have developed new collaborations among students, academic departments and faculties, farmers and other stakeholders, both at national and international levels. The three programs have stimulated transdisciplinary and action-oriented research and learning processes and catalyzed new research methods, leading to a deeper understanding of what is needed to develop sustainable food systems.

SIANI spoke with Shaktima López Hösel and asked her about why she chose to study agroecology, about the main things she learnt in her studies and how to revamp our education so that it better accommodates the development of the kind of skills sets that will mainstream agroecology throughout our food systems.

Q: Why did you choose to study agroecology?

SLH: I have always been interested in how things are connected, and I’ve even found it hard to only focus on one field of study. Food is a powerful and easy way to connect with others. I wanted to learn how to produce my own food and how to do it sustainably. This in turn made me curious about the challenges in sustainability and the power relations and structures behind natural resource management, which led me to environmental studies and sustainable development. Through that I found the concept of Agroecology, which for me is a framework that embraces many aspects of food going beyond production and consumption.

Q: Now that you are done with this program, can you tell what did you learn? What were the biggest eye-openers for you?

Studying sustainability is at times very frustrating – the issues it deals with seem so complex and overwhelming. Something that I find reassuring about agroecology is that the solutions it offers are often multifunctional and hold the opportunity to solve many problems at the same time. Another thing I learned is the importance of building bridges between academia, food producers, policymakers and other stakeholders, and creating ways to work together and learn from each other. I think this is one of the greatest challenges in food systems sustainability, but it’s very urgent.

Q: How to mainstream agroecology in education? Where to start and what to pay attention to?

I think it is important to show the positive effects of agroecology in practice. There are so many examples from around the world of successful agroecological projects, from food producers to participatory research projects to consumer organizations. Often these projects involve integrating scientific knowledge with the one based on experience and observation. Agroecology also brings people from different fields together and unites them to work for the common good. I think it is important to emphasize this and to show that these concepts are central to agroecological education.

”Many times the ideas behind agroecology can be dismissed as naïve and idealistic, I think this is something that happens with every paradigm shift. And yes, they are idealistic, but we need to be! I believe that to tackle the major challenges of today, we need to radically re-examine our common vision for the society we want in the future. Sustainability and equity must take the centerstage of this vision,” says Shaktima López Hösel.

Our education has to reflect this vision too, but I think that many students in different sustainability-related fields experience that it doesn’t. But students’ voices matter, and they can be critical towards how their educations are structured and what they are being taught. I see a clear reflection of this in the re-emergence of so-called folk high schools in Scandinavia, and the increasing interest among young adults in alternative education about food production and sustainable transition, that are centred around more action-oriented and transdisciplinary learning. I think universities should pay attention to this and take it seriously, and recognize that they need to change their education agendas and learning methods if they want to stay relevant.​

Shaktima López Hösel, graduate of the Agroecology Master’s Programme at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, is the lead author of SIANIs new policy brief about agroecology education. 

Read the policy brief about agroecology education.