A need for agri-food career info in our schools

By MPP Toby Barrett
Ontario needs to cultivate an enthusiastic generation of people interested in a career in agri-food — to grow our economy and to carry on one of Ontario’s finest traditions.

Currently, what’s being offered in our school system is a bit of a sad state as today’s curriculum doesn’t contain much with respect to traditional agriculture or traditional home economics. Present or future approaches to agriculture and food are rarely being taught.

I studied agriculture in high school for four years. It was a full-blown course at the time. I then did an MSc at the Ontario Agriculture College and was fortunate to come back to Simcoe Composite School to teach agriculture in Grades 9-12.

When we hear the words agri-food or agricultural literacy, many often think of farming alone or of just segments of agriculture. Agri-food and agricultural literacy encompasses everything from the farm to plate – the whole journey as they call it. It even includes manufacturing and retail.

Eight per cent of our gross domestic product is driven by agri-business. In Ontario the agri-food industry contributes $34 billion annually to GDP and supports three-quarters of a million jobs. But, the agri-food industry continues to have a low profile in the job market. There is a need to better link education to employment.

This fall, a motion by my colleague MPP Lisa Thompson passed debate asking the Ministry of Education to include mandatory career opportunities in Ontario’s agri-food industry as part of the Grades 9 and 10 curriculums. The ball is now in the government’s court.

There is an abundance of careers in a variety of fields. Marketing, food science, research, development, plant and animal genetics, plant and animal biotechnology, microbiology, financial services, advertising, government relations are all jobs that can be found in agri-business.

A University of Guelph report stated for every new grad there were three jobs waiting for them. Agri-food is an industry where there are jobs without people.

In Toronto, there are 1,500 food and beverage manufacturing establishments, employing 51,000 people. The Greater Toronto Area is a food processing hub — second only in North America to Chicago.

We want our young people to stay in Ontario. We need to ensure they understand the viable opportunities that exist. Today’s consumers also want to know where their food comes from, and want to know about the process. This understanding needs to start earlier.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has launched a program, Six by Sixteen, with the tagline, “We’re serving up food literacy”. The plan is that by age 16, young people would have the ability to prepare, at minimum, six nutritious, comprehensive meals. There’s a website and there’s an extensive library of resources, videos, recipes, and all kinds of advice.

CropLife Canada is a supporter of what they call Agriculture in the Classroom Canada. They have a terrific interactive website http://www.aitc-canada.ca/en/. They have set up a non-profit spinoff organization to push knowledge and understanding, again focusing on Grades 7-12.

The expertise and the desire to educate our young people about the industry exist. Agriculture and food career education in classrooms would be a great catalyst for this earlier start and for building a foundation of knowledge with young people.