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Teaching and Learning: Principles and Ethics of Agricultural Education

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Teaching and Learning: Principles and Ethics of Agricultural Education

By Uwe Jens Nagel1

Let me start with an observation on a phenomenon which may not come as a surprise to you but which has gone largely unnoticed by the general public in my country, Germany. Last year, just a little over 12 months ago, we witnessed a number of disastrous floods. It made the headlines because of sensational rescues of persons or heavy damages to our cultural heritage, particularly in the city of Dresden. This year we experienced long periods of drought, some areas received less than 20% of the regular rainfall. Mass media coverage again concentrated on melting glaciers, record lows in our major rivers, global warming, etc. And although an occasional mention was made of harvest losses at the farm level this was quite often counterweighted with the argument that "farmers always complain, anyway".

Hardly anybody took notice of the fact that in both cases – floods and drought – there was little if any effect on the availability and the price of food products. No one missed anything in the supermarket and inflation has been 2% or less in Germany over a long period in time now. Not very long ago, these natural disasters would have had serious consequences in our own country and even today there are many areas in the world where this would be the case: famines, price explosion, human suffering, political and social unrest as a consequence of climatic vagaries. The worst consumers may expect in Western Europe, however, would be something like short supplies or high prices of exotic or off-season vegetables or fruits.

The fact that we take food security for granted and that we are spending a smaller percentage (12 % in 2000) of our income on food than ever before has had strange consequences. Rather than acknowledging the enormous progress that has been made, the general public tends to see agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural research as something increasingly marginal. While we would like to stress the fact that today one farmer produces enough food to feed 128 persons compared to 10 persons 50 years ago, the public and many decision makers look at figures like GDP contribution (1.2 %) or percentage of the labour force (2.5 %). These figures, of course, go together. Undoubtedly, our agricultural system has been extremely successful in quantitative terms, possibly at the expense of other factors of which I will talk later. But let us start this discussion by simply stating that the enormous success - a constantly decreasing number of farms producing food and other products in abundance – is the result of highly innovative research and teaching combined with the diligence, hard work, and inventiveness of farmers.

Having stated this we must look at the other, rather dark side of the picture. Probably more than 900 million people in other parts of the globe are malnourished, undernourished or are facing starvation. This is not because the success factors mentioned above are lacking. Rather, they may not come to play because of poverty, political instability, civil unrest, unequal access to resources, high population pressure, global climatic changes, etc. You can add other factors and we all know that many of these factors are interrelated. In industrialised countries, on the other hand, progress in quantitative terms is no longer regarded as sufficient. Many criticise the fact that the progress realised is not sustainable and has been reached without giving due regard to the environment. Issues of quality both in terms of production processes as well as the final product are dominating the discussion and consumers as well as environmentalists are playing a new and possibly dominating role in the agricultural knowledge system.

Regardless of the concrete circumstances and specific conditions, actors in agriculture are forced to solve the problems and challenges connected with what has been termed "the critical triangle" of the three "E's":

  • To address the equity issue and reduce poverty

  • To increase production efficiency in order to feed a growing number of people

  • To ensure the protection and rehabilitation of the environment.

It is re-assuring that these partly normative goals are widely accepted and reflected in international policy statements and strategies, e.g., those of the international agricultural public research sector (CGIAR). The task to fulfil is formidable and it is not solely an intellectual one. A sound problem definition, the creation of appropriate solutions, the teaching and dissemination of research results, putting knowledge to work and evaluating its practical usefulness requires a complex set of linkages. And though farmers, extensionists, and scientists are working under extremely different political and economic conditions, with different resources at their disposal, and with very different historical backgrounds, I do believe that there are a number of guiding principles – technical, methodological and normative - which can and should be applied globally. The practical application of these principles will characterise the Agricultural Knowledge and Information System (AKIS) of the 21 century.

The reconsideration and, if necessary, redefinition of values and principles which I feel are the inherent strengths of the agricultural research and education system are one way to counter the negative trend in resource allocation which is observable in Germany and maybe in other countries as well. Halting this development will not be easy. We have to become explicit in what we can do and want to do and communicate this more effectively to the general public and to political decision makers. Thus, the nature and complexity of the problems to be solved (the three "E's") and the present reduction in resources to tackle these calls for some specific approaches and priorities. Neither of the points that I will raise is new. The argument is "back to the roots" or better: "back to the strengths".

The issues concern contents, methodology, and organisation of agricultural research and education. As will be shown, these issues are closely related to each other.

When Wilhelm von Humboldt founded the Berlin university in 1810, the institution was a relative newcomer. Many universities in Europe, America, Asia and Africa are much older. But Humboldt introduced a principle – revolutionary at the time – which has lost nothing of its importance and is still valid today: "No teaching without research and no research without teaching". In the case of agricultural education we must go one step further. Teaching must not only be "research based" but it must be based on problem oriented research. In other words: research that is relevant for the end user. In stating this we touch on ethical issues as well as on very pragmatic technical issues. Demanding a user orientation for knowledge generation is closely linked to the poverty issue raised above. "End users", i.e. farmers are not a homogeneous group and the knowledge produced and taught is often highly target group specific. Farmers are often under enormous outside pressure to produce specific goods with specific objectives – achieving self-sufficiency, producing cheap food for urban consumers and raw material for industry, gaining foreign exchange, meeting consumers' quality demands, etc. All these demands may be regarded as legitimate and thus reflect the responsibilities that the agricultural sector has within society. However, I still believe that agricultural education should be oriented towards primary producers and agribusiness. At the global level this normative goal implies the fight against poverty, at national levels it would mean safeguarding a sustainable rural development.

In 1970 Dr. Norman Borlaug received the Peace Nobel Price and, at the same time, many critics pointed towards the negative effects of the Green Revolution and questioned the wisdom of this decision. I always believed this to be unjust and un-dialectical, if not narrow minded. In referring to Norman Borlaug's work one can, however, very well illustrate some methodological principles. In the past, many of the important agricultural innovations were the product of high quality disciplinary research. Putting them into practice, adapting them to the very complex natural and socio-economic environment and especially dealing with the impact of innovations can only be done in an interdisciplinary fashion. No one would reasonably argue that the loss of 7 million ha land p.a. through desertification is a disciplinary problem.

Disciplinary research is done in all sciences. Interdisciplinarity, however, is the most striking intrinsic features of agricultural sciences. Where else do we have such a close relationship between technical, biological, social sciences and economics? Disciplinary research will always have an important role to play but may, for various reasons, become more and more the domain of private research. Our institutions must strengthen the linkages between disciplines and integrate disciplinary knowledge into interdisciplinary approaches. This is the strength of public agricultural research and should be vigorously developed and communicated.

Let me shortly mention the concept of transdisciplinarity, i.e., the integration of end users in the research process with a strong emphasis on knowledge application. A gradual paradigmatic shift can be observed during the last 10 – 15 years. In the meantime we have numerous examples of successful participatory technology development and the "Farmer first" principle has become a respected approach. At the same time, I recognise an increasingly realistic view of its potentials. In my own, pragmatic view we should look for a fruitful and peaceful co-existence of disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches.

What about organisational principles? I feel that the concept of the traditional agricultural faculty, college or university is far from out-dated. On the contrary: the continued structural combination of disciplines will facilitate interdisciplinary co-operation and problem solving. This does not imply a specific organisational arrangement as we would easily find out if we were to compare the different organisations represented here in this auditorium.

One principle, however, that we all subscribe to is that of internationalism. Now, stressing the importance of international co-operation at a conference like this would be carrying coals to Newcastle. Regardless of how agricultural knowledge systems are organised at the national or regional level, we have all experienced an intensification of our international linkages. Internationalising the generation and exchange of agricultural knowledge may be one of the most beneficial sides globalisation. While research has never seriously respected national boundaries, we are now also experiencing a tremendous impetus for the internationalisation of education. In Europe, about 40 countries have agreed to implement the so-called Bologna process by making educational systems more compatible. Our students have become extraordinarily mobile and gain experiences in all continents. The exchange of scientists is widely encouraged and my own university uses the number of visiting scholars as a performance indicator.

Until now, I have largely concentrated on the generation of knowledge – the scientists' learning part. What are the consequences for agricultural education – teaching to and learning by students? My thesis is that all the principles alluded to hold true for teaching and learning as well.

Our courses and programmes must be

  • problem oriented

  • interdisciplinary

  • participatory

  • cosmopolitan.

Here are a few thoughts to illustrate what I mean. We want our students to apply the knowledge they have gained. Problem orientation would thus mean two things: Bringing real world problems in the class room and concentrating on the methods to deal with them.

Students must be given the chance to integrate knowledge from different areas. Real world problems are never disciplinary and both, courses as well as programmes should reflect the interdisciplinary strength of our field.

Our students should have every possible opportunity to develop critical and independent minds. "Participation" is, therefore, not a fashionable slogan but a normative demand. If we accept farmers as equal players in the knowledge generation process it is only logical to treat the future disseminators in a similar way. Needless to say: participation is give and take, it entails duties as well as rights.

I have already mentioned the increased international interest of our students. What we can and must do is to remove all obstacles towards international mobility. This calls for a number of rather practical steps, like the institutionalisation of contacts, a higher flexibility of programmes, lobbying for more scholarships, etc.

In my presentation up until now you may have missed something which, at least in my country, has been characteristic for agricultural education in the past: the vast body of basic, disciplinary knowledge which generations of students had to learn. I am far from denying the necessity to build a sound knowledge base. But consider this: this body of knowledge is constantly and rapidly increasing. One reads that it doubles every so often or becomes obsolete every so many years. While I doubt whether one can really measure this in such way I am sure that today more knowledge is more readily available than ever before. Can we expect students to know all this? I assume that they must know the basic principles – which we should define – and learn how to apply them to different problems. Detailed knowledge is available world-wide (and often they know better than we where and how to find it).

The principles and ethics I have sketched apply to the wide field of agricultural education and research not just to any of its disciplines. I feel that there is an enormous strength and potential in agricultural education and research to solve the global problems mentioned in the beginning. A famous public relations book is titled "Do something good and talk about it". We are doing something good and talking about it may help to convince others. In this sense I wish the conference all the success and: let's talk about it!

1 Prof. Dr. Uwe Jens Nagel, Dean, Faculty of Agriculture and Horticulture, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Paper given at the Third Global Conferenceof the Global Consortium of Higher Education and Research for Agriculture (GCHERA): Global reforms in Higher Agricultural Education and Research: Responding to Challenges to Quality and Safety of Food and AgriculturalnProducts, September 22 – 24, 2003, Kiev, Ukraine


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