Farming and the countryside are in the mire, says Michael Alder. Can education dig them out?
With declining farm incomes, escalating fuel costs, consumer confidence dented by the BSE affair and anxiety over genetically modified organisms, agriculture is in crisis.
Although the 1999 harvest was good, accountants Deloitte Touche last month indicated that farm incomes had fallen by 90 per cent in the past five years. The grim situation explains the loss of 22,000 farmers from the industry last year, with many more likely to follow.
But, while farming is at the heart of the countryside crisis, the problems run deeper than falling prices and reduced incomes. We hear that ministers are planning a big increase in rural building schemes, and a leaked copy of the rural white paper suggests many implications for the countryside. There are concerns about chemical enrichment of the land by nitrogen-based fertilisers used in intensive farming, cloning, hunting and countryside access.
The source of the decline in farm incomes can be traced to the 1980s and the Common Agricultural Policy's basis in price support. Relatively small farms in Europe needed high prices to give their owners a reasonable income. High prices encouraged larger farms to overproduce. The result was a food surplus and a very costly Cap. The distribution of the surplus affected world trade, and tariff walls prevented access to the European market for developing countries.
A process of change was needed. Through the 1980s, attempts were made to stabilise prices and remove land from production through "set-aside".
Early reforms were unsuccessful. By 1992, the European Community had generated what one commentator described as "the greatest amount of uneaten food ever produced by any civilisation".
In 1993, the commission embarked on further reforms, which started the current income decline. The EU's Agenda 2000 aims for a further reduction in price support and the encouragement of trade at, or near, world market prices.
Some agricultural support has been turned into direct payments to farmers and made available for general countryside management. The effects of these, and previous reforms, have led to the current depression. Further changes anticipated for 2002-03 may worsen the situation.
In the middle of these problems, the education service is striving to make a positive contribution and, with the assistance and support of the funding agencies, it could do much to help.
Inevitably, rural problems have affected the sector serving agriculture and there have been mergers and closures in both further and higher education establishments.
But teaching is critical - the world still has major food shortages, despite the surpluses of the developed countries. Well-educated personnel are needed to produce food, and UK institutions can play a major role in providing such people. The key is for graduates to understand the need to put in place and manage sustainable systems of production. They must also understand the importance of the diversified rural economy.
Higher education has responded through its curriculum, with an increasing number of degrees covering subjects such as the rural environment and countryside management.
Two opportunities beckon. First, the benchmarking exercise, which can ensure that subject matter is appropriate, changing from traditional production-type courses to diversification and rural management. Second, the foundation degree, which presents an opportunity for institutions to design a vocationally-based product to suit the sector's needs.
Higher education is also about research. It is regrettable that there have been major cuts in agricultural research funding, not least in such essential areas as BSE. Ministry of Agriculture grants for postgraduate research have been cut.
There is much that needs to be done in the fields of animal, plant and social science as they affect farming and the countryside. The sector needs more support. Maybe the research assessment exercise will provide it.
Higher education can make a major contribution to outreach activities. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is helping farmers through projects based at the two independent higher education colleges in England - Harper Adams and Writtle.
There are numerous other schemes, most notably the vocational training scheme and the establishment of small business advisers for farmers, all operating through the government's rural development programme.
Benjamin Disraeli wrote 130 years ago: "Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of the country depends." His words can never have been more apposite than today.
Michael Alder is principal of Writtle College and a professor at Essex University specialising in rural policy.