Collaboration, networking are key to combatting food insecurity

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa — U.S. universities can learn a thing or two from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. The school has developed open networks of information between academic departments to promote sharing of scientific research developments among faculty and students.

The example set by Wageningen UR is what a commission by the Association of Public Land-grant Universities want to emulate in the U.S.

The commission, titled “The Challenge of Change: Engaging Public Universities to Feed the World,” seeks to solve food insecurity and agricultural challenges. The commission aims to focus on access, availability and utilization of resources while accounting for water demand, climate change and food waste.

A panel at the 2016 World Food Prize conference brought together university leaders from the U.S. and Europe to discuss how universities can solve food security through collaboration and data sharing.

Unfortunately, the funding for agricultural research and development is inadequate, Steven Leath, the president of Iowa State University said. But rallying around the problems, rather than specific disciplines or academic departments, is the key to solving complex problems like worldwide hunger.



Steven Leath of Iowa State University and Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue discuss open networks at the World Food Prize. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

“The fundamental idea is if you can identify the big problem, we can mobilize energies on campus and across campuses,” said Peter McPherson, the president of the APLU.

McPherson pointed to cancer research as an example of how different university departments work together to make a difference.

Louise Fresco, president of the executive board at Wageningen UR, said that if faculty are focused on impact and teamwork, then their publications and contributions can be used by other researchers toward achieving something greater. Collaborations on campus can cast a wave of change in faculty action.

“Open up, find things that mobilize people, and work on science that has an impact,” Fresco said.

Leath said digital agriculture is a new development that is necessary to make the sharing of data more efficient and easier to access. He said that universities need to give faculty proper resources for them to form interdisciplinary compacts.

To conquer global food insecurity, Leath said sustainability needs to be at the forefront of agricultural development because as the population continues to grow there will be less tillable land and more water scarcity.

“As a society, we aren’t satisfied with just production,” Leath said and added that researchers need to study and reevaluate the steps leading to food production to become sustainable.

With the commission in place, U.S. university departments will be charged with crossing discipline lines to work together for one common goal: eradicating worldwide hunger.

“The premise is that this is a global problem and agenda,” Gebisa Ejeta, a 2009 World Food Prize Laureate and professor at Purdue University, said. “It’s addressing the most fundamental needs.”

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