Grand challenge: sustainably feed the world
The times are a-changin’. In his prophetic 1963 lyrics, Bob Dylan sings that if our time on Earth is worth saving, we’d “better start swimmin’ or . . . sink like a stone.” Whether the times bring food scarcity or abundance, water risk or availability, deforestation or revitalized ecosystems, is up to us. In other words, if we want a sustainable future, we need to start swimming — developing solutions that will allow us to adapt and thrive.
To lead the way, the University of Minnesota recently released a strategic plan detailing the first of a series of “grand challenges” it aims to address over the next 10 years: cultivating a sustainable, healthy, secure food system; advancing industry while conserving the environment and addressing climate change; and building vibrant communities that enhance human potential and collective well-being in a diverse and changing world.
Since its inception in 2008, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment has been supporting solutions-focused people and programs to address these and other grand challenges. Through its fellows program and many strategic initiatives, researchers are working on projects ranging from modeling disease transmission in wild and domestic animal populations to advancing the concepts of ecosystem services and accounting for natural capital.
One of the biggest challenges we face is how to sustainably feed the world now and in the decades ahead as the climate changes. Agriculture is the biggest driver of land use on the planet. It has tremendous impacts such as producing a third of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 70 percent of global water use, and acting as one of the biggest drivers of change to forests, grasslands and other habitats.
Enter the Global Landscapes Initiative, an IonE strategic initiative that collaborates with leaders in agriculture and related sectors to develop solutions for meeting current and future global food needs while sustaining our planet.
GLI is co-led by Paul West and James Gerber. The two recently shared a few thoughts on how the initiative is building food security while helping advance the goals and vision of the University’s strategic plan.
What makes GLI unique?
A number of outstanding research teams at the U are focused on the issue of food security. One of the strengths of GLI is that we look at the issue from multiple perspectives while focusing on our ability to sustainably feed people both now and in the future. This approach allows us to assess the trade-offs among different management and policy strategies in different parts of the world.
How do transdisciplinary approaches — working across disciplines and with external partners — affect your outreach strategy?
At both IonE and GLI, we’re built for interdisciplinary work. We regularly work across disciplines at the University and also with external partners from government, NGOs and the private sector. These external partners help us understand the most pressing food security challenges they’re facing, which in turn helps shape our research. This puts us in a great position to identify problems early and then home in on solutions.
And it’s a two-way street. By helping shape sustainable strategies for leading nonprofit organizations, companies, scientists and others, we get our data out into the world where it can have the greatest impact.
Our collaborations help fill knowledge gaps and make data-driven decisions. Since each partner has a different focus and approach, we cater our communication and analysis to meet their needs. In this way, each collaboration is unique. Publishing papers in high-profile journals gets us credibility and is critical for advancing knowledge, but it is only one part of effecting change. The next step in having an impact requires helping partners in the context within which they operate.
How is GLI’s work transforming the future for the University’s community, business and government partners?
GLI works closely with other University programs to integrate demographic and environmental data, assess natural capital, quantify supply chain sustainability through life cycle analysis, and identify food safety risks to the U.S. food system.
But to influence global change, we need to work beyond the University. We bring a mix of University expertise, leadership, and a “Minnesota Nice” approach to working with leaders both locally and across the world. GLI has built a set of data and analysis approaches that are becoming a go-to standard for people working in non-governmental organizations, the investment community and fellow academic institutions. For example, we’ve developed research and analysis tools looking at multiple trade-offs for a broad set of issues such as food production; agriculture’s effect on climate, water availability and quality; and the role of diet and trade on global food systems.
What GLI discovery would you like to see take hold around the world?
A number of researchers are looking at on-the-ground interventions to improve outcomes for farmers and their environment. This is important work. You also have researchers identifying global-scale solutions to critical problems, and this is important work, too. Our biggest contributions are somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. Our efforts help identify where in the world to start making a difference. These “leverage points” — such as optimal locations for improving crop production — are places or issues within the system where local-scale interventions will have the biggest impact on increasing sustainable food production. For example, increasing yields to 50 percent of their realistic potentials in only 5 percent of the area growing major crops could provide enough calories to meet the basic needs for 425 million people.
What’s next for GLI?
We want to focus on investigating the vulnerability of the food supply system itself. This includes food production but also risk to supply chains. For instance, how will changes in weather patterns increase the volatility of global food supply? Will evolving trade networks smooth out that volatility? What effect will an increasingly affluent global population have on demand for certain agricultural products?
We are also assessing issues related to risk and how we might build a more resilient food system that can provide food security for a growing population while preserving the environment we rely on. This is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.
Photo by sandeepachetan (Flickr/Creative Commons)