Two billion. That’s the projected global population growth by 2050. It’s the equivalent of adding more than six times the current U.S. population to the planet. Feeding 9 billon people while conserving natural resources, improving global health and fostering greater equality were a few of the many challenges discussed at the recent Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD) meeting hosted at MU.
MU Chancellor Brady Deaton is the chair of the presidentially appointed committee, which is charged with advising the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and composed of leading agricultural scholars, including three World Food Prize recipients.
As part of a public forum, a panel including several leaders from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR), outlined the multi-faceted role its researchers and staff play in addressing the biggest challenges of the future.
Marc Linit, associate dean for research and extension; Jill Findeis, chair of the Division of Applied Social Sciences; Robert Sharp, director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group and professor of plant sciences; Willi Meyers, director of International Agricultural Programs; and Handy Williamson Jr., vice provost of International Programs, discussed how MU is working to meet the needs of a growing population.
Meyers shared stories of international collaboration and faculty exchange—building partnerships one person at a time. CAFNR International Programs (CIP) has several initiatives to facilitate collaboration beyond borders, including three visiting scholar/faculty exchange programs, and has helped establish an institution in South Africa similar to CAFNR’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), which provides comprehensive analysis of the food and agricultural industries and their impact on the economy and environment.
Linit showcased a few of the many international collaborations CAFNR is engaged in around the world to feed, fuel and clothe a growing population including collaborations in China on food safety research and the global food supply and a U.S.-India partnership to develop advanced biofuels. Linit also stressed the need to continue the tradition of agricultural research and extension and the importance of funding those critical components that have fueled our agricultural system. “The percentage of the U.S. federal budget spent on agricultural research is less than 1/100th of 1 percent,” Linit said. “If we’re going to continue to be a global leader, we need to take action to meet global challenges.”
Findeis emphasized interdisciplinary approaches and the importance of linking scientists and social scientists in global outreach and fostering two-way communication between scientists and the public to ensure research is informed by and serves the needs of the communities in which we work. She highlighted long-term CAFNR participatory research projects in Bolivia and Peru on sustainable agropastoral systems, food security collaborations in east Africa and the need for institutional and human capacity building projects.
Drought is the most important factor limiting crop productivity worldwide, causing annual losses near $13 billion. Bob Sharp, director of the IPG, stressed the need for greater investigation to what’s happening beneath the soil surface. Chancellor Deaton agrees. “Fifty years ago we recognized that the biggest challenge of the century would be water and that’s playing out right now in major ways—not only with the declining of the Ogallala aquifer in the U.S., but too much water in Bangladesh flooding crops and what happens when we don’t get enough of it,” Deaton said. “Think of that single issue: water management and you go over to CAFNR and Bob Sharp is leading a worldwide brain trust on root systems.”
Sharp shared the breadth and depth of the research in which the 57 faculty in the IPG are engaged, and outlined a three-point vision for sustainable agriculture:
1) Integrate university research strengths with end-user expertise to collaboratively define current agricultural limitations;
2) Build synergistic partnerships to translate existing knowledge into meaningful outcomes that address current limitations to sustainability;
3) Enact novel, visionary solutions to remove current and emerging obstacles to sustainability
“Obviously we need to develop sustainably,” Chancellor Deaton said. “If you’re not able to improve the environment you’re wasting your time. We cannot afford to not be well prepared and draw on the best minds in our universities and the private sector to bear on these issues.”