Rural workforce in need of ‘complete skills overhaul’

SRUC principal Wayne Powell called for a joined-up approach to skills. Picture: Contributed
SRUC principal Wayne Powell called for a joined-up approach to skills. Picture: Contributed
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Scotland’s agricultural workforce needs a complete overhaul of its skills if the farming sector is to benefit from the opportunities provided by precision farming technologies, a major conference heard yesterday.

Professor Wayne Powell, SRUC’s principal and chief executive, told more than 400 delegates at a precision agriculture conference that changes in farming technology offered huge potential to increase productivity in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

We will have to focus on careers and training opportunities

Wayne Powell

• READ MORE: Farming news

But with rapid technological changes coinciding with an ageing farming workforce, a “complete revitalisation” of the sector’s skills – including a more collaborative approach to training – was vital if that potential was to be achieved.

Speaking at the opening of the European Conference on Precision Agriculture (ECPA) in Edinburgh, Powell said: “We have an exponential development in knowledge and technology, but at the same time we have to apply this technology in new ways.

“It needs new ways of working, new collaborations, changes in behaviour and a real focus on step changes rather than what we have done in the past.”

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He believed the answer was in reshaping sector training and development to ensure young people entering the sector had appropriate skills and knowledge – both to make use of the data and information new technologies gathered, and apply them in practical ways.

“One of the biggest impediments of things changing with precision agriculture is the skills base of our workers.

“If we couple that with whatever happens with Brexit, the likelihood is we will have to encourage a higher proportion of our indigenous population to have higher levels of skills. That means we will have to focus on the careers and training opportunities.

“This has to involve a joined-up approach between industry and education providers so that we design a curriculum that isn’t just responding to what’s happening, but is at the forefront of ensuring we have a work-ready population.”

• Farmers, scientists, agronomists and academics from more than 20 countries will attend the four-day ECPA event being held in Edinburgh.

As well as a focus on the role which robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence and other high tech developments can play in arable and grassland livestock systems, delegates will get to see crop trials and field displays later this week during a visit to Scotland’s world-leading research centre, the James Hutton Institute.

Government ‘failing citizens’ by staying silent on future of food

Government silence about the future of UK food since the Brexit referendum is “an astonishing act of political irresponsibility” according to a report published yesterday.

Drawn up by a group of leading academics, the study warns that the UK is in danger of sleep-walking into a food crisis unless the full implications and the magnitude of the work required to maintain stability of supply and food security is realised and acted upon swiftly by the authorities.

The report, “A food Brexit – time to get real” states that governments have provided no policy vision for the future of UK food production or consumption other than a belief that agri-technology and an export drive will suffice for farming, and that reasserting a 200-mile exclusion would resolve unsustainable fish sourcing: “They will not,” it concludes.

Food policy specialists Professors Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Terry Marsden, who drew up the report, said that for the government not to talk about or to plan openly for the disruption that Brexit would cause was “bizarre and irresponsible”.

“It is as though there has been a collective amnesia about how Brexit could seriously undermine food security in the UK. Because of the intrinsic importance of food in Brexit and in the nation, the current UK political system is failing its citizens.”

• READ MORE: NFU Scotland says low food prices put producers at risk

The report also warned that the crisis could not have come at a worse time for the food and farming sectors.

“The Food Standards Agency is a shadow of its former self. Defra has had years of cuts and suffers a serious staff shortage, just when the UK needs many of the best and brightest civil servants to negotiate the most important element of Europeanisation – our food.”

“To leave the EU would sever the UK from many bodies which underpin food – from scientific advisory bodies to regulators, from research programmes to subsidies to regions. What is going to replace these? There is silence from Defra and the government.”

Stating that US agribusiness was “salivating at the prospect” of flooding the UK with low standard food, Lang said the realities of a Food Brexit were awesome – yet the British public had not been informed about its implications.

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