Water for Food

A call for leadership

Ed Schrock

Former Nebraska State Sen. Ed Schrock made an offhanded comment during today’s session on innovative water governance that I cannot stop thinking about.

Schrock was chairman of the Nebraska Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee for eight years. He was instrumental in advocating for major changes in Nebraska’s laws regulating the management and use of groundwater and surface water. In my opinion, he is a true statesman and someone who has created a legacy for future generations of Nebraskans.

He lamented Nebraska’s term limit laws, which now limit state senators to running for two consecutive terms of office. The learning curve on natural resources issues is steep, he said. And he admits that he had more courage to reform water laws during his later years in office than he did at the beginning. This is coming from a man who is a lifelong farmer – not exactly someone unfamiliar with water and land.

His comment speaks to the broader issue of leadership in water and food issues. During the past three days, we have heard from global experts on these issues. I hope I’m not being impolite when I say that many of our leaders do not appear to be in the early stages of their careers.

Who will the next generation of leaders be? Are ambitious 20-, 30- and 40-somethings getting (and taking) opportunities for development? As a 30-something, contemplating the loss of institutional knowledge in the next decade is daunting, to say the least.

Growing more food with less water is a complex topic that requires years of immersion to fully understand. Stepping into leadership positions takes courage, which is typically gained through firsthand, field-level experience. I challenge today’s leaders to pay attention to mentoring young scientists, farmers, researchers and policymakers. I don’t pretend to speak for my entire generation, but many Gen Xers want that and genuinely appreciate your efforts.

If you’re in the early years of your career, I challenge you to seek depth of understanding as well as breadth. That requires a greater commitment on our part to stick with a career path. Otherwise, in 20 years, who else will hold the institutional knowledge that can help us avoid past mistakes and pitfalls? Who else will serve our state’s Natural Resources Districts and become state senators, if we’re unwilling?

The University of Nebraska is cognizant of these issues. Today, UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is signing a memorandum of understanding with the University of São Paulo, Brazil, to enhance research and education in water and resources management. A year ago, NU and its Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute signed an agreement with UNESCO-IHE. Together, they are developing a Master of Science in water for food and other courses related to food, water and agriculture.

Quality education is a great start, but the rest has to come from us.

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