Professor Wayne Powell: Food for thought at the biggest agricultural event on the calendar

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Between 22 and 25 June, around 180,000 visitors are expected to visit the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston, near Edinburgh.

While many will be there as a result of a direct connection to farming or rural life, ­thousands of others come simply to enjoy a great day out – sampling Scotland’s ­finest food and drink, being wowed by the fabulous livestock in the Grand Parade, and browsing the many stands showcasing the best in rural skills, activities and products.

Like other key organisations ­working to support the agri-rural ­sector, one of the main reasons we at ­Scotland’s Rural College promote our activities at the Highland Show is to tell the story of food and farming to non-rural audiences and, of course, how SRUC’s research, education and consultancy activities contribute to this.

With a recent survey revealing that nearly one in five young children in the UK thinks that fish fingers are made from chicken, I believe the industry still has some work to do to communicate its relevance to wider society.

This is particularly so given that the demands on agriculture and food production have never been more pressing.

The world’s population is racing towards nine billion by 2050. Here in Scotland and around the world, how and where people live and what they eat is changing.

That is ­having increasingly severe impacts on human health as well as on the ­enormous problem of ­wasted food at farm, supply chain and ­consumer levels. This is set against a ­formidable backdrop of climate change, ­dwindling natural ­resources and extraordinary political events.

Farming and suppliers have an unprecedented duty to ­provide ­nutritious, sustainable and ­ethical food, while contributing to ­economic, social and environmental progress. The planet’s future, and the health and happiness of families everywhere, depend on it.

Meeting these daunting challenges will need innovation, intelligence and cross-disciplinary collaboration at national and international levels. For farmers, it means being open to adopting new practices or embracing technologies that maximise profitability and sustainability.

We will be highlighting some examples at the show, such as a portable backfat scanner for assessing body condition of pigs; CT scanning for accurately measuring traits that can be used in sustainable breeding ­programmes to meet market demands; and data-gathering drones to help arable farmers increase yields and reduce crop damage.

The right workforce is also ­essential. As the complexity of food ­production and supply grows, we need ever more technical jobs ­requiring appropriate skilled and qualified people –the researchers to develop the new ­varieties of plants or to adapt the breeds of livestock ­farmers and crofters will take to ­market. The vets and agronomists to keep them healthy and free from diseases, the food ­technologists and nutritionists to devise new products, with marketers and media specialists to keep the information flowing to producers, retailers and consumers.

And that’s not to mention those who design and ­manufacture the hi-tech machinery forming another part of Ingliston’s farming and food shop window.

There is substantial demand ­within Scotland for newly qualified ­people. Research undertaken for SRUC ­suggested that 3,000 new jobs are currently being created each year across all land-cased sectors, including farming, forestry, horticulture, veterinary science, environmental management, ­aquaculture and much more. So the challenges we are tackling come paired with significant ­opportunities, ­particularly to ­countries like ­Scotland with ­outstanding assets across ­knowledge, expertise and business.

The success of our food and drink sector – and farming’s role within it – provides compelling evidence for what can be achieved and the ­Royal Highland Show offers an incredible platform for demonstrating that expertise.

So if you are passing SRUC’s stand at this year’s show please, don’t be afraid to step over the threshold.

Inside you will uncover some ­fascinating facts about what goes into producing your food, the variety of skills that are involved and the career opportunities that these can present.

Professor Wayne Powell is principal and chief executive of Scotland’s Rural College.