Perspectives On Feeding The World's Growing Population

Nebraska Notebook

At this spring's conference, Dilip Kulkarni of India's Jain Irrigation Systems, believes time is running out to meet future food needs.

Published on: June 26, 2013

Feeding 9 billion people on this planet by 2050. How often have you read about that challenge?

Assuming the prognosticators are correct, how in the world do we do that? How do we double food and feed production by that time? Those are questions that greatly intrigue me. I don't have the answers. And I don't believe most experts do, either.

But give them credit for putting this challenge on the front burner. They are doing just that at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, home to the three-year-old Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. At WFI, scientists, policy analysts and students, from Nebraska and eventually from around the world, will delve into "fundamental and applied research to provide the knowledge base for effective practical solutions to managing the challenges of water quality and quantity and increasing food."

The major global constraint to the food production puzzle is water, or rather the lack of it.

The WFI is based here in Nebraska primarily because of Daugherty, who started Valley Manufacturing in 1946, a company that evolved into Valmont Industries. The Daugherty Foundation donated $50 million to develop the WFI. The institute also is here because of Nebraska's leadership in irrigation equipment development, research and farmer expertise in irrigation.

The question I've always asked, and never gotten a clear answer, is how does what we do and know in Nebraska regarding irrigation relate to food production in poor and resource-limited nations? Nebraska's grain production has exploded due in large part to irrigation and much of what we produce today—corn, soybeans, wheat, dry beans and so on--are exported worldwide. We also export tons of meat products derived from the livestock that consume our crops. But many of the purchasing nations with populations that desire to move up to a middle-class diet are not the nations where the world's poorest people live and try to scrape a living from limited resources and with limited knowledge on better seed varieties and improved production practices.

The advanced irrigation tools and practices our irrigators employ are more and more efficient in water use while also increasing production, but the scale of this type of agriculture won't work in the small farm plots and poor soils of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and parts of Central and South America.