Water for Food

Partnerships pave the way to innovative solutions for water and food security

April 23, 2015

By Roberto Lenton and Molly Nance

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The challenges
We need a bigger table. There will be over 200,000 more people at the global dinner table tonight than were there last night. By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people to feed on this planet. But our population is not only growing, it’s growing wealthier, with increasing demand for food — especially meat and dairy products, requiring more agricultural production and water use. As a result of population increases and rising incomes, total food demand will likely double by 2050 (Earth Policy Institute, 2014).

Growing populations and rising incomes are just two of the constraints to ensuring food and water security for future generations. There’s also the devastating effects of climate change — turning cropland into deserts, swelling crop water demands and increasing the variability of water supplies. Concerns for the sustainability of groundwater are increasing, as water tables in many parts of the world continue to fall due to over pumping. Nearly a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, making land less fertile and reducing crop yields (The Globalist, 2014). And while advances in agricultural research and technology have helped improve crop production for decades, farmers in some high-potential agricultural areas have recently hit a glass ceiling — a plateau that constrains advances in the quest for more food for more people (Brown, 2012).

Holistic solutions
To ensure sustainable global food security in the face of growing demands for scarce water resources to meet other human and environmental needs, as well as climate change, the world needs improvements in the management and use of water by and for agricultural and food systems. This enormous challenge — one of the most significant of the 21st Century — plays itself out in a variety of different contexts, from the large and highly productive systems characteristic of some major food exporting countries, to the more vulnerable smallholder producer systems in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent. The availability of water for food production and other purposes, and the technology and policy options available to address the challenges, are all driven by local conditions. Hence, both the specific nature of the problems, as well as their potential solutions, differ substantially region by region, country by country, basin by basin, watershed by watershed, and farm by farm.

Despite these major differences in both problem characteristics and solutions, some of the major problems that need to be solved in our quest for greater water and food security cut across a range of contexts. For example, both large-scale farms in the major food exporting countries and smallholder producer systems in the world’s poorest countries need to close yield and water productivity gaps. Improving the sustainability of groundwater systems is proving to be a challenge in rich and poor countries alike. And both industrialized and low-income countries are grappling with ways to reconcile agricultural water use with public health needs and the allocation of water to maintain environmental services.

The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska, established in 2010 through a generous $50 million grant from the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation, was created precisely to address this need for innovation in water management in a range of different contexts across the globe. Our vision is for a food and water secure world: one in which global food security is ensured without limiting the use of water to meet other pressing human and environmental needs. Our mission is to have a lasting and significant impact on achieving more food security with less stress on scarce water resources, by conducting scientific and policy research, using the results of research to inform and advise policy makers, and educating the necessary human talent. Importantly, we work both near our home base in the center of one of the world’s most important food producing areas, as well as in other parts of the globe facing significant agricultural water management challenges.

Unlike most other organizations active in this space, DWFI works to build bridges across the worlds of large-scale and small-holder agriculture, which traditionally have moved in different circles and not talked much to one another, concentrating on subject areas that are vital to water and food security both in Nebraska and globally. These subjects include:

  • Yield and water productivity gaps, building on the pioneering work of the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, as well as the University’s expertise in plant breeding and biotechnology development to improve drought tolerance and crop water productivity.
  • High-productivity irrigation, working for example to use remote sensing to monitor and predict yield and water productivity levels in real time and implementing innovative projects in partnership with the private sector and social entrepreneurial groups in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Improving groundwater management, drawing on the vast experience of Nebraska’s water governance institutions and farmers, as well as the University’s technical and policy expertise in the subject.
  • Public health and ecosystems management, ensuring that efforts to improve water and food security also advance public health and ensure ecosystem integrity, bringing to bear the University’s expertise in natural resources management, water quality analysis and technology, and public health.

Data driven innovation
An important path toward improving water and yield productivity is in data and technology. Harnessing the data revolution to improve water and food security from local to global scales was the theme of the Institute’s sixth annual Water for Food Global Conference, held in October 2014 in Seattle. Discussions focused on examining how to use the vast array of currently available data to help farmers manage inputs and improve yields.

The explosion of data in recent years, which is having a huge impact on virtually every field of human endeavor, could potentially be an agricultural and water management game changer. Its utility stems from the patterns, trends and insights gleaned from analyzing large and diverse volumes of data, and then using those insights to make better decisions that lead to greater water and food security.

High-tech farmers generate much data on their farms. Companies are developing cloud-based tools to help them use the data and incorporate weather and other information to make decisions, such as when and how much to irrigate, as well as to automate irrigation and other farm tasks. The private sector is also taking advantage of new data tools to develop a range of products, from drought-resistant seed varieties to variable rate irrigation systems. At the other end of the spectrum, new data tools have the potential to “leapfrog” existing technologies in data-poor regions to aid smallholder farmers, much as cell phones have superceded landlines in many low-income countries. Remote sensing and digital soil mapping are becoming less expensive and could, for example, surpass costly land-based data gathering techniques.

The conference was an Americas Regional Process Event for the Seventh World Water Forum in Korea in April 2015, and the Institute has prepared a Synthesis Report (Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, 2014) as a contribution to the forum. The institute anticipates that the innovative concepts and research discussed at this conference will be continued within the Water for Food theme at the forum.

Partnerships for solutions
One key to finding solutions to complex challenges is partnerships. From its inception, the DWFI was envisioned as developing cooperative research programs with organizations working nationally and internationally, to enable access to complementary expertise, extend its global reach, and amplify its impact, rather than trying to achieve its mission on its own. To that end, DWFI strives to keep abreast of the work of other participants — individuals, organizations, academic institutions or businesses — in its sphere of interest and collaborate with these actors where appropriate, entering into formal agreements with several partners, from the UNESCO Institute of Water Education in the Netherlands to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Sri Lanka. In carrying out its research and education and engagement activities, DWFI builds on these strategic partnerships.

We look forward to continuing the discussion and developing meaningful and measurable solutions to increasing food security with less stress on water resources with colleagues at the 7th World Water Forum in Korea.

Earth Policy Institute (2014). Retrieved from Earth Policy Institute: http://www.earth-policy.org/?/data_center/C21/

Brown, L. (2012). Full Planet, Empty Plates.

Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (2014). Water for Food Global Conference. Harnessing the Data Revolution: Ensuring Water and Food Security from Field to Global Scales.

The Globalist. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.theglobalist.com/global-food-security-10-challenges

About the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute

The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska was founded in 2010 to address the global challenge of achieving food security with less stress on water resources through improved water management in agricultural and food systems. We are committed to ensuring a water and food secure world while maintaining the use of water for other human and environmental needs.

Our approach is to extend the University of Nebraska’s expertise through strong partnerships with other universities and public and private sector organizations. Together we are developing research, education and engagement programs in a focused effort to increase food security, while ensuring the sustainability of water resources and agricultural systems. We work locally and internationally, bridging the water and agricultural communities and the worlds of smallholder and large-scale farmers to deliver innovative solutions to this complex global challenge.

The University of Nebraska has invested in four interdisciplinary, University-wide institutes — including the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute — that leverage talent and research-based expertise from across the University of Nebraska system to focus on complex state, national and global challenges.

Learn more at waterforfood.nebraska.edu/.

About the Authors:
Roberto Lenton is the Founding Executive Director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska. He is a specialist in water resources and sustainable development with more than 40 years of international experience. Until January 2012, Lenton chaired the World Bank’s Inspection Panel. Earlier, he was senior advisor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, director of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Division of the United Nations Development Programme in New York, director general of the Internal Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka and program officer in the Rural Poverty and Resources program of the Ford Foundation in New Delhi and New York. He served as adjunct professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and as assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lenton is past chair of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and the Technical Committee of the Global Water Partnership. He co-authored Applied Water Resources Systems, co-edited Integrated Water Resources Management in Practice and is lead author of “Health, Dignity and Development: What Will it Take?” The final report of the United Nations Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation, which he co-chaired.

Lenton has a doctorate from MIT and a civil engineering degree from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Molly Nance is Director of Communications and Public Relations for the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska. She has 25 years of experience in marketing communications, strategic planning, advertising, public relations and event management. Most recently Nance was director of strategic planning and marketing for Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, one of the nation’s largest independent rehabilitation facilities.

Prior to her work at Madonna, Nance was director of communications for the Nebraska Hospital Association, communications manager for U.S. Central Credit Union in Overland Park, Kansas, and served as a marketing officer for two Nebraska banks.

Nance earned a master of liberal arts degree from Baker University in Kansas and has a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a certified professional marketer. She serves on the board of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center and is a past chair and board member of several philanthropic, civic and professional organizations.

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