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28 Sep

The Agtech Revolution and University Education: The Transformational Challenge

shyam-kamath-headshot-blog

Dr. Shyam J. Kamath, Dean and Professor

California State University at Monterey Bay College of Business

This article will be published in Wu, Amy. From Farms to Incubators: Telling the stories of women innovators in agtech in the Salinas Valley and beyond. New York: Linden Publishing, 2021.

The Agtech Revolution in agriculture has brought unparalleled opportunities for the improvement of the efficiency, effectiveness, and location of agriculture through the application of digital, information and communication technologies (ICT), and space-related technologies. The application of these technologies is already changing the practice of modern agriculture. As agriculture and food production achieve greater high-tech heights, and resources such as water and land become more scarce, the world will increasingly depend on innovative solutions from its brightest minds to meet the food needs of fast-growing humankind.

Education and research have a key role to play in developing the brightest minds for the fulfillment of the agtech transformation in the U.S. Many of the digital, ICT, and space technologies are being applied by trained scientists, technologists, engineers, agronomists, agribusiness experts, and entrepreneurs. Universities and community colleges collaborate with the agribusiness industry and governmental USDA and state-based network of labs and field research institutions. They continue to develop basic and applied knowledge in agriscience; soil and crop engineering; bioscience; plant-genetic engineering; digital science; ICT technology; automation and robotics; drone and satellite technology; controlled-environment (indoor) and vertical farming; as well as critical areas in agribusiness supply-chain management; logistics, distribution and transportation management; the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data analytics; process optimization, quality and risk management; and food safety and waste management.

Filling the Educational Gap

Universities and colleges are developing new degree, certificate, and research programs that address these basic disciplines, skills, and technologies. Such programs include agriscience and aquaculture (aquaponics/hydroponics); agtech supply-chain management; bioscience and biomaterials engineering; biotechnology and biomechanical engineering; bionutrition and biochemical engineering; biological pest control; crop and plant bioscience; decision-support technologies and parametric systems modeling; food traceability and safety; food storage, preservation, and waste management; geospatial science and technology; integrated pest management; precision irrigation water quality management; precision agriculture, robotics, and mechatronics engineering; sustainable production and delivery systems; urban agriculture and contained agriculture management, among other discipline areas. Universities and colleges have typically lagged in providing the industry with state-of-the-art skills and human capital due to their slow decision structures; the cost-driven constraints of serving current skill demands rather than developing future-oriented skills; and the constraints of state/donor funding and politically-driven funding models. This situation is changing. While agricultural education faces a major technological transformational challenge, it is transforming itself to meet this challenge.

The good news is that the current virtual education evolution is providing opportunities for colleges and universities to rethink their educational and funding models. The positive trends that are emerging include:

  • More intense and widespread competition from nimble and well-funded private and global providers
  • Online providers of on-demand, just-in-time educational skill-building
  • New educational delivery models driven by digital, ICT, and big data analytics technology
  • Skill and research outcomes-based educational programs in agriculture and agribusiness

The transformation can be seen in the programs offered by community colleges such as Bismark College in North Dakota, Clark State Community College in Ohio, Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, Hartnell College in California, Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, Mitchell Technical Institute in South Dakota, Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Nebraska, and West Hills College in California, to name just a few. They offer courses in agricultural geospatial technology, agricultural science technology, crop, and soil science, precision agriculture, precision irrigated agriculture, and agricultural big data analytics. These programs continue to develop and evolve to meet industry needs and fill opportunity gaps.

Universities offering advanced agtech-based degree and certificate programs include CSU Chico, CSU Fresno, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and UC Davis in California; Cornell University in New York, Iowa State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University in Indiana, North Dakota State University, University of Illinois, and the University of South Dakota, among others. Newcomers like California State University, Monterey Bay are gearing up to offer new degree programs and certificates in agtech supply-chain management and logistics; robotics and mechatronics engineering; and data-science based plant and crop science. Clearly, there is a fast-paced educational evolution taking place to catch up with the agribusiness industry development curve.

Filling the Gender and Non-White Human Capital Gap

The opportunity for the agtech educational evolution offers a unique opportunity for women and non-white groups to become the leaders of the agtech revolution. Since the fall of 1988, the number of female students in postbaccalaureate programs has exceeded the number of male students. Female students comprised 56 percent of students enrolled at institutions of higher education in 2018.1

The percentage of U.S. college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black has been increasing. From fall 1976 to fall 2016, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from four percent to 20 percent of all U.S. residents enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions. During that same period, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from two to seven percent. The percentage of Black students increased from 10 percent in 1976 to 14 percent in 2016.2

This creates a unique opportunity for women and minorities to excel and take the leadership in programs connected to the agtech revolution. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), a little over one-third of all degrees earned in agricultural science were awarded to women in 1980. Forty years later, women now make up more than half of the graduates. A similar trend can be seen for non-white students. The overall percentage of women enrolled in agricultural majors has increased from 47 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2015, according to the latest enrollment data on ag majors available from NCES. Since 2010, more than half of all U.S. agricultural students have been women.

Minority enrollment has grown, as well. The number of minority students in agricultural majors across the U.S. has increased from just over 9,000 in 2004 to nearly 16,000 in 2015, an increase of 75 percent over the 11-year period.

The trends in agriculture and agribusiness show that the education sector is undergoing a significant change as a result of the digital and agtech transformation of agriculture. Universities and community colleges are fast transforming themselves to meet the opportunity gaps that exist. There is a unique opportunity and trend for women and non-whites to take a central role in this transformation. This is confirmed by the increasing and dominant trends in enrollment for both women and minorities in overall undergraduate education in the United States as well as the same trend and pattern in agriculture and agribusiness education. This bodes well for the diversity and vibrancy of this critical sector of the U.S. economy as it transforms itself.

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About the Author

Shyam Kamath, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized scholar and educator who has gained recognition as a global innovator and expert in the areas of international economics, business management, and business program innovation. He has more than 35 years of experience in international education management, international economic development and management, sustainable enterprise formation, global business consulting, and university teaching. Kamath is the founding dean of the College of Business at CSU, Monterey Bay and has held academic and administrative positions at leading universities in the U.S., Canada, Asia, and Europe. He serves on the boards/advisory councils of the Hope Collaborative, the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, Rancho Cielo, MBEP’s Techno-economic Committee, Hartnell College Foundation’s Strategic Planning Committee, and CSUMB’s College of Business Advisory Council and Sustainable Hospitality Management Council. He also serves on the advisory board of the for-profit company, LeaderJam.


1. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp
2. Retrieved on September 10, 2020 from nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018070.pdf