Water for Food

The Awakening to the Water for Food Challenge

November 12, 2014


By Ronnie Green, Vice President, Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska; Harlan Vice Chancellor, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

“Originally appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Blog on Oct. 23, 2014.”

As I write this blog post, I am coming off of a very strong and high-quality dialogue of the 2014 Global Water for Food Conference convened by the University of Nebraska Daugherty Water for Food Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This was the 6th Global Water for Food Conference, but the first to be held outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a rousing success with approximately 275 leaders from 32 countries around the world dialoguing for three days on the thematic topic of “Harnessing the Data Revolution” around water sustainability in agriculture and food. The conference was also supported with sponsorship from Monsanto, Syngenta, the Daugherty Foundation, the Global Water Initiative, and the Nebraska Corn Board.

The theme of the conference around “big data” brought out a number of opportunities and challenges lying ahead in the “2050 challenge”. While it is clear we are now entering the “big data” era around the globe in almost all industry and societal sectors, agriculture and water management has tremendous ground to cover to fully capitalize on what this will mean for enhanced water management and sustainable food production. Already in the developed world we have seen tremendous changes occurring in precision-based agricultural systems in crop production, with some extension in to animal agriculture as well. The realization of the production systems as portrayed in a video clip by John Deere from a mere three years ago is already happening in Nebraska and other major agricultural bread baskets of the world – where the farm business operator gets up in the morning in her or his headquarters home and goes to the control screen to make the day’s decisions on the grid for agronomic and risk management in a systematic and information / data-based manner using “big data”. And, as we are all experiencing in our daily lives, we likely are only at the tip of the iceberg in this data and precision revolution for agriculture.

However, with that said, there remain huge gaps for us to fully capitalize globally on such data-rich decision making in real-time. Translation of high-tech agriculture from large-scale to small-holder based agricultural systems across the most food insecure regions of the world remains a great challenge. This is both in terms of populating the public databases necessary upon which to build the “big data” required (i.e. real-time weather and climate data, soil type and microbiome data, surface and groundwater data and fluctuations, nutrient management information, etc.) as well as making technology available within the contexts of political and social environments. There was wonderful and rich discussion at the conference about both ends of the spectrum in these challenges and opportunities – including how cell phone use is beginning to be the platform through which much of this revolution can be enabled.

The Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI), as originally envisioned by the late Bob Daugherty, along with J.B. Milliken, Mogens Bay, and Jeff Raikes – all current members of the board of directors of the Institute, has really begun to reach that vision under the leadership of Roberto Lenton and our still relatively new directors Christopher Neale (research), Nick Brozovic (policy), and Chittaranjan Ray (Nebraska Water Center). The vision is indeed audacious to be the world’s epicenter for Water for Food research and policy – and I could not be prouder of how that is indeed beginning to be the case. I have always heard that copying is the greatest form of flattery – and based upon the number of university and other NGO “water” programs being developed in the US and abroad at the moment – the vision in 2009 was “spot on”.

Through the work that our over 130 scientists continue to do focused on Nebraska water and agriculture challenges, coupled with the partnerships that DWFI has built over the past several years around the world including UNESCO-IHE, FAO, Indian Ag Research Institute, Jain Irrigation, USAID Middle East and North Africa Water Centers of Excellence, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Water Initiative, Global Harvest Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School, and the Lower Mekong Public Policy Initiative, the China Institute for Water and Hydropower Research, China Ag University, to name only a few, DWFI is really changing the world in amazing and impactful ways. At the conference in Seattle this week, we added the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) to that list of partners through a formalized agreement that was signed on site. Welcome IWMI!

A special congratulations to Rachael Herpel and her team at DWFI and Underwood Events for such an impressively staged and organized event – it was hard work with tremendous planning and flawless execution capped with a wonderful dinner hosted at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) on the final evening where we had the opportunity to dialogue with Pamela Anderson, the head of global ag development for the BMGF. It was a wonderful evening and I had the opportunity to congratulate Pamela and the BMGF team for their efforts, including that their current plan includes 20% of their portfolio devoted to enhancement of animal agriculture in their target regions of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. As I pointed out every chance I had at the conference, animal agriculture needs to be added significantly to the discussion of Water for Food given the expected increase of 40-60% in meat, milk, and egg production needed by 2050!

Washington, DC and the Nation are Taking Notice . . .

I also had the pleasure of traveling from Seattle to Washington, DC, with Suat Irmak, Eberhard Professor of Biological Systems Engineering. While it was a late night for us getting from the west to the east coast, it is well worth it as this morning the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture recognized the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network (NAWMN) with its National Partnership Award. This award specifically recognizes effective partnership teams that integrate the Land-Grant mission of research, teaching, and extension. This is a HUGE and VERY WELL DESERVED honor that recognizes Dr. Irmak along with colleagues Gary Zoubek, Jenny Rees, and Brandy VandDeWalle from UNL Extension as well as Rod DeBuhr, Dan Leininger, and Daryl Anderson from the Nebraska NRDs for the phenomenal work they are doing with a network of over 1,100 farmers, the NRCS, and crop consultants across the state through the NAWMN. It was with great pride that I stood with NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy and REE Undersecretary Cathie Woteki as they honored the team in this way. Real impact on the ground from team effort benefitting all of Nebraska agriculture and natural resources – that is why they have been so appropriately singled out for this distinguished honor. All of Nebraska and certainly all of the University of Nebraska shares in both the benefit and the sense of pride in this team for their amazing work. A press release summarizing the award can be found here: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/newsroom/news/2014news/10232_nifa_awards.html

Indeed, it appears the world is awakening to what we have long known in Nebraska – water for food is a fundamental gift and resource that deserves our utmost attention and passion in research, teaching, and translation extension. A big shout out to all our faculty, staff, and partners around the globe who are making a difference through DWFI. This is critically important, meaningful, and impactful work in which we are all engaged. Thanks for making a difference.

Disclaimer: The Daugherty Water for Food Institute welcomes blog articles from guest contributors. Please note the comments shared by guests represent their own views and not necessarily those of DWFI, the University of Nebraska or any institutions with which DWFI may be affiliated.

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