IMPROVEMENT OF A COUNTRY'S human capacity for productivity is a pre-requisite for social and economic development. Formal agricultural education is needed for the training of skilled professionals to support agriculture through education, extension, information, research and entrepreneurship. Non-formal (extension) education is needed for training farm families. Furthermore, promoting indigenous knowledge and farmer-to-farmer sharing of information is essential for achieving the goal of food security.
It was stated 30 years ago that "It simply is not possible to have the fruits of a modern agriculture and the abundance of modern industry without making a large investment in human beings". This is as true today. Studies on the benefits of investment in education have found rates of return for investment in higher education in Africa, for example, of 14 percent at the social level and 33 percent at the private or individual level.
Non-formal education can have equally impressive results. Numerous studies have shown that farmer training has important effects on agricultural production. A 1992 study on the value of education in small-scale agriculture in Nigeria found that an increase in the average education of a farmer by one year increases the value added to agricultural production by 24 percent.
The study also found that formal education and non-formal education can be viable substitutes, indicating that low levels of education among farmers can be offset by the provision of good extension services. The study concludes that "investment in farmers' education or a successful policy of bringing educated persons into agriculture can accelerate agricultural production."
In most developing countries, women are major contributors to agricultural production, and especially food production. Increasingly, it is recognized that the failure of many agricultural development efforts can be attributed to an underestimation of the need for agricultural training and information for women farmers.
The reality is that too few women receive the basic literacy and numeracy skills at the primary and secondary levels of education that are prerequisites for higher-level training. At present in Sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the girls 6-11 are estimated to be in school, which means that more than half of the girls in the region will never receive any formal education. Although the gender gap in education is slowly closing, the result of a long-standing imbalance is that nearly two-thirds of the world' illiterate adults are women (UNESCO, 1995).
Unfortunately, there is a global trend towards declining investment in both formal education and non-formal education. FAO's figures show that investment in agricultural training, extension and research has declined from 9 percent of total donor agricultural assistance in 1984 to 2 percent in 1989.
If education is to make a significant contribution to social and economic advancement, it has to be perceived as a long-term investment. Unless there is sustained human resource development through investment in education, the goal of sustainable economic and social development will not be realized.
In many developing countries, higher education in agriculture is at a crossroads. Financial constraints are severe; at the same time the demand for higher quality education has never been greater. There is a need for greater educational relevance and higher quality graduates. There is a need to enrol more women and to produce students who are prepared for positions of leadership.
Some progress has been made. A 1996 FAO study shows that, in the past 10 years, the enrolment of women in intermediate and higher level in Africa has increased from an average of 15 percent to nearly 25 percent of the total students studying agriculture.
But many problems remain. University graduates are no longer automatically being hired by governments and employers in the private sector are demanding students with different skills and knowledge. Curricular revision is needed that includes important topics that are generally missing such as the role of women in agricultural development, farming systems, agri-business and marketing, environmental protection, and population issues. Furthermore, institutions of higher education need to play a developmental role through outreach activities and by establishing linkages with farming communities.
At the intermediate level of education, where most of the field-level agricultural extension workers are prepared, there is a need for better training in both technical agriculture and in methods to communicate production technologies to the millions of small-scale farmers who need them. The training of extension workers should emphasize skills and knowledge for sustained crop production and strategies for the prevention of food losses during harvest, storage, marketing and processing.
What matters most for economic development is the capability of rural people to be efficient producers given their natural resource base. There is little doubt that economic and social development, and the benefits that accrue such as improved nutrition and health, requires an educated populace.
No country can develop without well-educated people and a strong agricultural base which provides food security. The role for agricultural education is to provide improved, relevant and effective teaching, research and outreach. To achieve food security for all, requires a critical mass of dedicated, well-trained men and women.