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. 

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The annual Nebraska Water for Food Conference, held this spring, brought some interesting perspectives from scientists and government leaders from other nations who addressed the more than 400 people in attendance. One positive aspect of the WFI is the partnerships formed with universities and governments throughout the world.

At this spring's conference, Dilip Kulkarni of India's Jain Irrigation Systems, believes time is running out to meet future food needs. But he also says that solutions are within reach. "It is time now for action; we must take our research, our knowledge to the people."

The problems are complex and differ around the world, he said, and government leaders need to be convinced to take research seriously in crafting new laws and policies.

Making this challenge even more difficult, in the view of several speakers, is climate change, which if not addressed will cause even more strain on water resources.

Women in underdeveloped countries do most of the farming, so reaching them specifically with more education and demonstration projects on raising crops and livestock was another point made at the conference.

So, it seems the overall objective is hiking food production and doing so with more efficient use of water.

But a speaker at another Nebraska conference this spring said the world can produce enough food to feed its growing population. It's global food policies and politics that harm distribution, according to Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a Cornell University professor and the 2001 World Food Prize Laureate.

"We've got lots of food in the world," he said. "The problem is inappropriate policies, not food supply."

I'm not sure how many scientists believe that, but he provided a perspective worth hearing.

He estimated that 2.9 quadrillion—that's 12 zeros—pounds of food are lost every year throughout the distribution system. Climate change is one reason for expected food price fluctuations, Pinstrup-Andersen said, but he also blamed use of grain in producing biofuels.

The food production challenge is indeed complex. The differing opinions and perspectives from around the globe make it so. But at least they are meeting to address that challenge, and Nebraska's Water for Food Institute will play a significant role in bringing them together to find solutions.