Asian universities are neglecting to take food security seriously

Even institutions that are engaging with the SDGs as a whole are ignoring their responsibilities to promote sustainable agriculture, argue Wayne Nelles and Supawan Visetnoi

January 27, 2022
Rice terraces agriculture Thailand
Source: iStock

Since 2015, a growing global movement has aimed to mainstream the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in academia. Unfortunately, SDG 2 – to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture – has largely been ignored, particularly among universities in Asia.

This is especially concerning given that agri-food systems are among the world’s greatest contributors to environmental damage, including agrochemical pollution, desertification, deforestation, drought, biodiversity loss, land degradation and climate change.

A recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) presents a grim picture of the progress that has been made in the food and agriculture domain, arguing that the related SDG targets are beyond reach at a global level unless corrective actions are urgently taken. The Asia-Pacific region especially lacks reliable data on sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition targets.

Moreover, projections suggest that South-east Asia in particular is off track to meet SDG 2 by 2030 while increased challenges arise from the Covid-19 pandemic. Many countries in the region are significantly dependent on farming or agri-food sectors for the livelihoods of their populations and their national economies, while food security is increasingly vulnerable because of climate change.

And yet, despite the scale of the problem and the slow progress to date, a recent study we conducted suggests that academics and administrators who research higher education policy, reform and SDG implementation have largely ignored SDG 2 – although the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings have been a catalyst for universities engaging with the SDGs as a whole.

Our research focused on how SDG 2 is perceived and applied with other SDGs and on engaging faculty from diverse disciplines, institutes and professional fields, including agricultural resources, food technology, environmental studies, political science, social research, botany, health sciences and veterinary sciences. While we focused mainly on the situation at one institution, we suspect that studies of comparable universities in the region could yield similar results. Several literature reviews on the SDGs in higher education include no discussion of SDG 2 or agri-food studies.

More research is needed to understand the extent to which different institution types in various countries are aiming to tackle SDG 2. Such neglect may be understandable in large, comprehensive urban universities with siloed disciplines and professional schools. The situation may be different for mandated agriculture universities that are more committed to rural areas where farming and agri-food studies are more obvious priorities.

But we would argue that more universities must adequately study and teach agri-food issues and understand the many scientific disciplines and professional fields that can play a part in addressing SDG 2. The Impact Rankings can play a role in helping with priority-setting, academic planning, educational outcomes and community engagement.

There are several potential reasons for why there are few research publications on SDG 2 from scholars at Asian universities. In Thailand, for example, challenges include resistance from scholars who want to focus solely on their own discipline, and the perception among students that agriculture education is less prestigious than other subjects.

It also does not help that the UN narrowly conceives the tertiary sector as about promoting affordability, access and quality in SDG 4 (quality education), and that none of the eight targets relating to SDG 2 mention education. Agricultural research is mentioned in target 2.a, but an explicit mention of the role of universities here is missing.

Governments also selectively report on the SDGs according to national capacities and policy priorities. Lower-income countries particularly lack faculty capacities, resources or funded research projects to adequately teach or study SDG 2 issues, especially from social and sustainability sciences and with comparative multidisciplinary perspectives.

The THE Impact Rankings methodology has been helpful in identifying some otherwise neglected SDG themes, interlinkages and knowledge gaps for the university sector. But more refinement may still be needed, especially when it comes to the student-related metrics. For example, although there is a metric on the proportion of graduates who receive a degree associated with any aspect of food sustainability within an agricultural or aquacultural course (2.4.1), this may not adequately track student learning outcomes.

Nonetheless, many universities still have a wealth of unique untapped expertise to collect and analyse SDG 2-related data, inform food security debates and better serve student futures in the sustainable agri-food sector while improving education and training for rural communities.

New academic studies complementing THE’s data collection and reporting on the Impact Rankings might include more attention to how SDG 2-related issues intersect with other SDGs when it comes to research on agri-food systems, learning outcomes, student pathways to green agri-food jobs and services to small farmers with rural community impacts.

Our hope is that global university partnerships will support new studies on SDG 2-related data collection, international reporting and analysis so that research, teaching, outreach and stewardship on ending hunger, achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture is no longer neglected.

Wayne Nelles is a visiting scholar and Supawan Visetnoi is an assistant professor, both at Chulalongkorn University’s School of Agricultural Resources.

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