Agriculture and the environment

Why is the Robert H. Smith Faculty a great option for students who want to be involved in the field of sustainability?

It’s the only academic body in Israel that provides a degree in agricultural sciences, and when young people look at the future and its challenges, agriculture is one of them.

Mahyan Gon, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Current predictions estimate that by 2050, there will be around 10 billion people on Earth. If things stay the same, the agricultural sector will have to increase production by about 70 percent. That’s a huge task, especially if you consider that available land and water are decreasing, which means having to produce more with less.

What’s more, our faculty allows students to focus on food and environmental sciences, too. Agricultural production, the food industry and the environment are linked: not only do we need to increase the amount of food we produce, but we also need to make our food systems smarter and ensure all this doesn’t affect the health of the environment. Once we have these fields in one place, teachers can talk to each other and join forces, and this is the uniqueness of our campus.
That’s why students are coming here – to improve the quality of life of many people, not just Israelis. All our graduate, master’s and PhD courses are taught in English and open to international students, who make up about 20 percent of our graduate cohort — something we’re very proud of.
You’ve mentioned the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. How do you implement it in practice?
Students are registered to a particular program, but we make sure that, during the course of their studies, they’re exposed to other areas of interest related to their main field of research.
We also have a student-run entrepreneurship and innovation club, FaculTech, which focuses on food production. We encourage students from different programs to apply as a team; we want them to think outside the box and look at the big picture, rather than focus on narrow topics.
When it comes to our faculty, we provide seed money for professors from different programs to collaborate.
How do you prepare students for life beyond university walls?
A few years ago, we realized that we, in academia, should be heavily invested in strengthening links with the industry. Building solid ties with relevant sectors would help us better serve our students, properly preparing them for life after graduation. To bridge the gap, we launched a new program, Academia to Industry. Over the course of one year, students learn how to run an industry project before taking part in a relevant internship. We’re proud to be the first experimental faculty in the country to promote this type of collaboration.
It’s good for us, for the students and also for the industry — companies can train students for a whole semester, evaluate their abilities and, after graduation, recruit them right away. It’s a highly popular program and a promising way to merge academia and industry. We’re proud to be the first experimental faculty in the country to promote this type of collaboration.
Talking about preparing students for the workplace, how does the faculty balance theoretical knowledge with practical experience?
I’d say that two-thirds of the syllabus is comprised of more basic, fundamental courses — students need to know math, physics, chemistry, biology, genetics. From the second and towards the third year, they are faced with much more practical classes and real-life problems. In terms of research on our campus, we’re somewhere between very basic research going all the way to very applied questions.
Yoram Ascheim
The faculty’s research focuses on increasing food production and improving the quality of agricultural products, all while protecting the environment. Can you give us some examples?
One example that’s at the crossroad of agricultural and food sciences is our research into sesame cultivars. This ancient grain is a superfood, but it’s still mostly being grown and harvested by hand, with low returns. Through a process of pure breeding, one of our faculty members has created a line of cultivars with enhanced yield and seed quality, suitable for modern agricultural practices. It’s an example of very applied research based on basic knowledge of genetics – as well as of how you can increase production without harming the environment.
Another example at the interface between agricultural activity and environmental sciences is our research into the use of wastewater for irrigation. Israel is a pioneer in the field, with 50 percent of irrigation water in the country having been reclaimed; that’s great in terms of water management, but what’s in it? We found that, when we irrigate with reclaimed wastewater, we’re introducing pharmaceuticals into the agricultural environment. I’m studying the effect of those medications on the soil – whether they can be degraded and, importantly, whether they’re being reintroduced into the food chain.
How do you ensure graduates of the faculty are ready to face an uncertain future?
We’re not sure what the world will look like in 2050, but what we do know is that people will need to eat, and to produce food, we need agricultural sectors.
We have entrepreneurship and innovation courses given as part of the curriculum, and most of our students take them. However, they also have to become comfortable with the unknown: that’s the main message that I, as a dean, try to deliver. We don’t give them the right route from A to Z, we want them to find their own way. They need to understand what you don’t understand, design their experiments and, based on the data they get, re-design the next experiment. As a teacher, in some of my exams, there are various ways to answer a question, and I don’t direct students to a specific solution. I want them to bring me their own answer.
In Israel, we have a lack of resources – we don’t have enough water, land or space. Coming up with innovative ideas to meet these challenges is in our culture, it’s part of our DNA, and we encourage students to learn this way – not just to repeat what we teach them in class, but to think independently.
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