‘Zero Hunger’ SDG: How this university became a leader

Hokkaido University, one of Japan’s oldest national universities situated on Japan’s northern-most island amid large swathes of farmland and originally established as a college to promote agricultural productivity and food security in a cold climate, has emerged as world class in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Now a large comprehensive university, it maintains research facilities throughout the island, including experimental farms, aquatic research stations and a 70,000 hectare forest for research purposes spread throughout Hokkaido and Wakayama prefecture. It has placed SDGs at the core of its mid-term plans over six years starting from April this year.

The university came 10th in the UK-based Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2022 released at the end of April – the highest placed Japanese university in these rankings, judged for its social contribution to achieving the SDGs. It has made particular advances in tackling SDG 2 on ‘Zero Hunger’, and was ranked first globally on this specific SDG.

The Impact Ranking of universities is based on their work towards the SDGs and includes rankings for each of the 17 SDGs. This year’s list was topped by Western Sydney University in Australia, followed by Arizona State University in the United States.

The original purpose of Hokkaido University, which was established in 1876, was to develop agricultural production and technologies to make Hokkaido into a major food production centre.

Expanding from its agricultural traditions

Hokkaido University Executive Vice-President Atsushi Yokota said recognition for the university as a global leader in tackling Zero Hunger (SDG 2) was the natural outcome of a tradition of focusing on agricultural development as a way to develop Hokkaido Island and which also contributed to avoiding famine in Japan.

“This tradition is now expanded globally,” he told University World News. Being recognised in the rankings was “a good opportunity for the university’s members to realise where the strength of the university lies and see their own research from the aspect of the SDGs,” he added.

Japanese universities have seen a recent boom in SDG-related programmes, with top national and private universities catering to growing interest among young people, according to various university statements.

In 2021, former prime minister Yoshihide Suga also released an SDGs Action Plan outlining a US$61.8 billion budget to meet the goals that include Japan becoming a carbon-free society in the future. Japan’s largest business conglomeration, Keidanren, identified the SDGs as a major investment area.

But Yokota said achieving a leading position is the culmination of steps taken over the past decade. “The university steadily reinforced new structures and policies to strengthen its traditional focus on agricultural development. The intention of these reforms was to modernise our studies to [adapt to] the changing academic environment,” he explained.

“Hokkaido University has an edge in this field given its agrarian academic culture. Reforms to boost the university’s standing were adopted easily, based on a tradition of working in harmony with nature,” said Takamitsu Sawa, who was president of Shiga University from 2010 to 2017.

From his own experience of establishing new projects during his tenure, ushering in change is not easy in universities, Sawa said. “For example, it took me years to launch a digital data science section that forced me to spend a lot of energy convincing the bureaucracy and academics.”

Hokkaido’s Yokota also underlined the importance of “flat” rather than top-down structures among students and academia to instil a climate of collaboration and interdisciplinary research that are key to SDG development.

Some key measures tied to Hokkaido University’s Zero Hunger mission include the expansion of the university’s global programmes for collaborative research and international student exchanges, as well as community outreach programmes with local high school students and interactions with farmers.

For example, Hokkaido University’s Marche or farmers market has become an annual event organised independently by students over the past five years, bringing producers and consumers together from all over the region.

One Programme for Global Goals

The university’s “One Programme for Global Goals” project established this April is supported by JPY65 million (US$482,000) from the university’s budget to help steadily intensify the emphasis on fieldwork as well as cultural studies, especially within the ongoing student exchanges with foreign universities.

“This approach has expanded the narrow focus of results-oriented research into a human needs-based approach to study,” said Mikio Masaki, coordinator of the One Programme project which he describes as “one of the most extensive SDGs-focused educational programmes”.

One Programme was set up to integrate three existing programmes within the university to foster cross-border student learning supported by partial or full scholarships provided by the university. Around 100 students participated in the past three programmes, though the number declined to 50 this year due to pandemic restrictions on incoming students.

Masaki also said cultural and language studies as part of the exchanges for overseas and Japanese students contributed to a more holistic approach that is central to SDG learning.

“Sustainable themes in research can be strengthened when students develop a unified goal. That goal is built through personal interaction that is facilitated when they learn each other’s languages and culture,” he said.

Other partnerships have been developed with universities in Indonesia, Thailand and Russia.

Other university centres have expanded to take a more international approach. The university’s Global Center for Food, Land and Water Resources initiated in 2020 is based on the university’s earlier-established Global Station for Food, Water and Land Resources set up in 2015 for cutting-edge research on securing sustainable food, water and land resources. The Global Center sends students to research institutions and international organisations to broaden their perspectives.

SDG-related exchanges

The university’s international research skills programme for developing sustainable transportation systems and infrastructure was launched in 2017 with three Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) – IIT Hyderabad, IIT Bombay and IIT Madras – offering a one-year opportunity across academia, research and management for students affiliated with the universities.

The Indian students study Japanese while Japanese students learn Hindi providing what Masaki describes as the “entry point” to collaborative research aimed at sustainability.

“The students have already built personal relationships when they embark on collaborative research projects to develop energy-efficient and environment-friendly transportation. This aspect is crucial to sustain long-term working relations even after the research project is over,” he said.

Sustainable transportation as a topic for the university’s research collaboration is linked to India’s large infrastructure projects supported by Japanese overseas development aid loans.

“There is an urgent need to develop skills that will provide sustainable options in infrastructure in India. Protecting the agricultural industry in infrastructure development is a priority for our research development,” Masaki said.

Applying technology and research to agriculture

Hokkaido University’s Robust Center established in 2018 aims to make the food value chain more robust by incorporating industrial engineering in agriculture, forestry and fisheries through next-generation technologies. Projects have started to find better solutions to help farmers, using smart technologies such as data-driven automated farm machines.

Hokkaido University also launched an Institute for the Promotion of Business-Regional Collaboration to support researchers in patenting their breakthroughs and to collaborate with the private sector, including the farming industry.

The ongoing joint autonomous tractor project started in 2019 in collaboration with the R&D section at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone corporation (NTT), Japan’s leading telecommunication company, is intended to support Japan’s ageing farming population that has led to a severe labour shortage, posing a risk to the national farming industry.

Ryota Ishibashi, NTT’s chief scientist, said the collaboration fuses NTT communication technologies for autonomous control systems with robotics technologies developed by Hokkaido University to improve agricultural productivity. Autonomous or unmanned farming robots require the development of technologies using multiple cameras and sensors as well as social science research to ensure they can be used safely in the community.

“Academic research at Hokkaido University significantly contributes to the development of smart agriculture through its expertise in agricultural robotics fused with ICT. In addition, their expertise and leading position are essential to clarify safety guidelines for autonomous vehicles designed for the implementation of the technologies in society,” Ishibashi explained.

“The plan is to use these models around the world to facilitate digital transformation of agriculture and improvements [to alleviate] food shortages,” he said.