Lifelong learning is the key to a successful agrifood sector

FUTURE OF FOOD - The agrifood industry is facing a series of challenges due to climate change, population movement and economic uncertainty. So what developments are bringing about change? 

The food and drink industry is enormously important to the UK economy: it contributes £28.2 billion a year, more than the automotive and aerospace industries combined.

The agrifood supply chain employs 3.7 million people and yet there is still a severe skills shortage and widespread lack of knowledge about opportunities within the sector. Professor Carol Wagstaff (pictured), Director of the AgriFood Training Partnership (AFTP), aims to put that right.

What does the AgriFood Training Partnership do and what are its aims?

The AFTP is a collaboration between six core partner universities, who have an extensive track record in delivering education and research in the agrifood sector. Our aim is to train people who are already working in the agriculture, food and drink industries, to enable them to progress their careers and bring them up to date with scientific and technical innovations. That way they can disseminate knowledge through their business and in doing so boost the productivity of their company.

What are the issues surrounding sustainability in the industry?

Using the three commonly accepted pillars of sustainability: economics, people and the environment, in the case of economics, industry is hampered by the lack of new talent entering it. There is a chronic skills shortage: the food industry will need 109,000 new recruits by 2022, along with a further 595,000 in agriculture to replace those retiring or leaving the sector for other reasons.

We either need to bring people in at ground level after completing their degrees, or improve the skills of people already in the industry. But, not enough new people are moving into the industry from science-based undergraduate programmes whereas existing staff think they need to take time out for study and secondments.

People’s perception of the industry is wrong: there is a great need for applied scientists as well as people trained in home economics. This is a complex manufacturing industry so there are many different job paths open. A tractor is now essentially a computer on wheels and we need people with the skills to programme and operate that. We have to start in schools: and help teachers and pupils understand that our industry requires scientists, engineers and IT specialists. The government’s industrial strategy promotes lifelong work-based learning and we support that.

What are the major environmental issues affecting the industry?

We are facing the perfect storm John Beddington described: an increased demand for food, energy and water against a background of climate change which is. already affecting primary production. For example, there was massive rainfall in Spain at the beginning of the year, which simply washed away the crops. We have to develop products and technologies that will make food production more resilient and sustainable, which will in turn make them more economically viable.

What are the new developments in the sector?

The biggest is precision agriculture, which will allow us to apply crop protection chemicals, fertiliser and optimise efficient water use on a plant by plant basis. On the human side we are developing a better understanding of how to improve processed food, specifically reduction of fat, salt and sugar, without compromising flavour – we call this health by stealth. People choose convenience foods for convenience sake, but we are making those foods healthier for them.

How will Brexit affect the sector?

It will affect the recruitment of students because unfortunately there is a perception that the UK is not very welcoming at the moment. The UK food industry is uncertain whether it can continue to employ its senior staff from different parts of the EU. But there may be some benefits – the Common Agricultural Policy has been no friend of the UK farmer and that may change.

Professor Carol Wagstaff was originally interviewed by Global Health Action.

September 2017

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