(The Land) FOR the first time in more than a century, there will be no students starting first-year agriculture at the University of Western Sydney's Hawkesbury campus this year.
With only six students applying, the university ''had concerns about the quality of experience we would be able to offer these students'', a spokesperson said.
The university's applications for agriculture have fallen to about a tenth the level of two decades ago, when a typical year's cohort at the one-time Hawkesbury Agricultural College was 70 or 80 students.
The decline in agriculture enrolments is a long-term national trend, which Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, said posed a risk to Australia's food producing future and international standing, as well as a challenge to government, industry and the higher education sector.
With the world population expected to grow by 2 billion in the next 40 years, Professor Chubb said the world could not be a humane and safe place if those people were hungry. Australia would need to carefully harness its agricultural talents and skills to retain its position as a responsible global citizen with an influence in world affairs.
''We are going to have to manage activity in agricultural science and support both for internal purposes and for external aid purposes at a very high level, and grow it,'' he said.
Australia produces enough food to contribute to the diets of at least 60 million people and as many as 400 million people if investments in agricultural science, technology and training are taken into account, says the report of a government-appointed panel chaired by Professor Chubb on enhancing the effectiveness of Australia's agricultural research aid.
While Australia is internationally recognised as a leader in agricultural research and education, the $200 billion-a-year industry fears the graduate shortage will hinder the productivity gains it needs to stay profitable, be competitive and meet growing demand.
Professor Chubb said young people could not be forced to study issues of national importance, so incentives were needed. ''Doing stuff in the old way is not working,'' he said.
The number of agriculture graduates now being produced, about 700 a year, is only about one-sixth of what the industry wants, based on an analysis of advertised jobs by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the number of Australian university campuses offering agriculture degrees has dropped from 23 in 1989 to nine.
''We have done a lot of soul searching about this,'' the council's secretary, Professor Jim Pratley, of Charles Sturt University, said. ''The general view is that people still think of agriculture in its old image, people sitting on tractors ploughing up the land, creating dust storms.''
But he said that contemporary agriculture was a ''sophisticated and complex'' multi-disciplinary field ranging from microbiology and biochemistry to marketing and nanotechnology which reflected the revolution in sustainable agricultural practice of the past 25 years.
The decline is ''extraordinarily serious'', said Emeritus Professor Richard Bawden, a consultant engaged to look into it by the University of Western Sydney and author of a report on the future of agricultural education for the World Bank.
''Old-fashioned agriculture degrees'' were becoming ''less and less relevant'', Professor Bawden said. ''What we need to do is sit down and recast the whole idea of what does it mean to be an agriculturalist.'