Note: This a featured session summary from the Proceedings of the 2019 Water for Food Global Conference that took place April 29-30, 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
As Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), Sally Rockey has a unique opportunity to see how agriculture is developing. At this time, she said, “Data and technology are converging to make things happen at a breathtaking speed, and we need to take advantage of this incredible time in science.”
FFAR’s mission is to build unique partnerships to support innovative science that addresses today’s food and agriculture challenges. FFAR works to provide access to affordable, nutritious food grown on thriving farms.
Rockey said agriculture adopts new technologies fast and we need to ride that wave, but we have so much data we practically don’t know what to do with it. “We’ve generated more data in the last two years than in all the years of humankind,” she said. Rockey used DNA sequencing as an example — it can be done 1 billion times faster and cheaper than 25 years ago.
The result is that science can have an impact on productivity in as little as two years. Science in many cases is shifting to proprietary R&D, which means scientists and companies must work together and research must be available to everyone. For that reason, Rockey and others are focusing on working in precompetitive spaces, where “whatever we learn, when we’re together, it will benefit all.”
This means there are different people sitting at the table with a broad group of ideas. FFAR decided to categorize its efforts based on the ideas of its funding partners. For example, Rockey said her organization now says they work on “sustainable water management” rather than simply “water scarcity,” because they’ve learned it’s not just about scarcity, it’s about water use efficiency.
It’s important to make things clear, so everyone will understand. It doesn’t mean much to say “agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals.” It means more to show a photo of the decimated Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest freshwater lake, which was diverted for agriculture – it’s now completely gone because it wasn’t managed sustainably.
One of the foundation’s most important projects currently is the Irrigation Innovation Consortium, which funds new innovators. Researchers have to become entrepreneurs and find funding for their work, Rockey said, and they often will change to another discipline just to get funding; from agriculture to health for example. “If we capture them early, we can keep them in agriculture,” she said.
Offering monetary incentives, Rockey said, can help researchers find answers. For example, the foundation’s Egg-Tech Prize is helping improve the sexing of chicks on the day an egg is laid to save time and money. Rockey believes we could create similar prizes for water – a worldwide competition – and she asked conference participants to come to her with ideas. “It’s crowdsourcing on steroids,” she said. “Anyone could come up with an answer to this water dilemma.”
"The next 30 years are not just the most important years in agriculture, but the most important years there will ever be in agriculture."
The point is, Rockey said, we always talk about the year 2050, but we need to be concerned about what’s happening right now. “The next 30 years are not just the most important years in agriculture, but the most important years there will ever be in agriculture. We need all the best minds at the table.
View a full video recording of this session on YouTube.
Speaker: Sally Rockey, Executive Director, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research