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U of M launches several initiatives that will keep its food-security traditions alive

Maasai people in Kenya are among millions of farmers worldwide who depend on livestock for their livelihoods.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Maasai people in Kenya are among millions of farmers worldwide who depend on livestock for their livelihoods.

Hang around the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus for some time and you get the feeling you are attending a session of the United Nations' General Assembly.

Over the years, students from almost every country on Earth have joined the "farm" campus's fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Like seeds on a global field, those students scattered around the world to squeeze ever more food from the planet's finite resources. Most prominent was the late Norman Borlaug who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his Green Revolution breakthroughs. But there were legions of others who helped farmers coax more potatoes from Andean fields, rice from Malaysian paddies and milk from Ethiopian goats.

Now, though, the university is challenged to fill a vacuum. A generation of distinguished teachers and scientists have retired or died. Meanwhile, farmers will be pressed to feed 2 to 3 billion more people by 2050 with roughly the same amount of land and less water for irrigation.

"Don't drop the ball," Ruben Echeverria pleaded at a food-security symposium on the St. Paul campus Monday.

Echeverria, from Uruguay, is a prime example of the university's reach. During the 1980s, he earned a Ph.D. in agriculture and applied economics on the St. Paul campus. Since then, he has worked on agricultural research policy issues in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Currently, he is director general of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.

Several balls to juggle
Actually, the next stewards of global food security will need to keep several balls in the air.

The innovation needed now is more complex than ever before, said Carlos Sere, another lecturer at the symposium. He is director general of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

Take animal farming. It's easy to say humans should eat more plants and less animal fat in order to curb greenhouse gases and obesity.

But 600 million people around the world count on animal products for their livelihoods — from milk to meat to leather. Most of them are very poor, small-scale farmers, Sere said.

"Nobody has all of the answers," he said.

Here's the encouraging development: Today's students embrace the complexity.

They're not as intensely focused on crops and livestock as were their predecessors on campus, said Allen Levine, dean of the U of M's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences. Now the interests have spread to related issues , such as the environment and nutrition.

"Our student body is switching toward an interest in full-food systems, not just in traditional agricultural practices — in everything from pre-harvest to post-harvest to processing foods," Levine said.

The university recently has launched several initiatives in a bid to keep its food-security traditions alive while also tailoring them for the needs of the next generation.

Who's hungry and why
The tools of these 21st century initiatives are more complex than Borlaug could have imagined in the 1940s, when he set out to save wheat crops in Mexico and later India and Pakistan.

For example, researchers have married satellite mounted sensors and geographic information system technology to old-fashioned, on-the-ground observations and come up with databases and maps that pinpoint food problems in Africa and South Asia more precisely than ever before.

The project, called HarvestChoice, is a joint effort of the U and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., with $4.7 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Plant breeder Bernard Otukho worked wheat plots with Minnesota scientists in Kenya.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Plant breeder Bernard Otukho worked wheat plots with Minnesota scientists in Kenya.

The research team has divvied up the whole of Africa into grids of approximately six square miles each, said U of M Prof. Philip Pardey, who leads the project along with Stanley Wood, a Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI.

Let's say an aid organization has money to spend on African agriculture, and it wants to target the investment where it would do the most good. HarvestChoice's databases can show within a few miles where the hungriest people live in a given country, what crops they have tried to raise and why those crops too often fail.

They can generate maps showing other obstacles — say, a lack of access to roads and markets for the food farmers do harvest. They can trace climate patterns.

Man on the moon vs. local reality
In the past, entrepreneurial scientists could shoot for big breakthroughs in plant breeding and other farm technology — man-on-the-moon strategies, if you will.

Now, the challenge is "to match technology to local realities in terms of institutions on the ground," Pardey said.

For example, HarvestChoice has helped local ministers of agriculture in East Africa analyze their fertilizer markets. It turned out that 90 percent of the main ingredient in fertilizer comes to the region through just two ports: Mombasa, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. And the price for fertilizer almost triples between the time it leaves a port and reaches many of the farmers who need it.

With that kind of information in hand, analysts can explore options — reducing transportation and market costs, or targeting the fertilizer to areas where it is going to do the most good for the lowest cost.

A four-year first phase of the HarvestChoice project is nearly completed. Now, Pardey said, chances are good that the Gates Foundation will increase the funding to $8.5 million for research to continue until 2014.

High-tech as it is, the work is very much a continuation of the mission the University followed during the previous century.

"It fits hand in glove," Pardey said. "But we are just trying to use more modern approaches."

Redoubling efforts through the UN
This month, the university launched a new partnership with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. Provost E. Thomas Sullivan kicked off the initiative with a lecture at the FAO's World Food Day in Rome.

"We have not yet found all the answers to solve world hunger — but as an academic institution, the University of Minnesota is committed to that discovery," Sullivan said in the lecture.

Brian Steffenson, a U of M plant pathologist, tested barley in Kenya.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Brian Steffenson, a U of M plant pathologist, tested barley in Kenya.

"We stand ready to follow in the footsteps of our esteemed alumnus, Norman Borlaug, and to begin the next green revolution — this time, a truly 'green' revolution, one that our planet can sustain as well as one that can sustain the doubling of global food demand by the year 2050," Sullivan said.

Sullivan has signed a memorandum of understanding with the FAO, committing the University to address a range of issues associated with global food security.

Part of the commitment involves stepping up efforts to control the threat of Ug99, a stem rust that threatens wheat crops in Africa and much of Asia. Minnesota scientists have been among the world's leaders in tackling that problem, trekking between St. Paul and research stations in Kenya. (See MinnPost's related report from Kenya here.)

Sullivan also detailed research at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve near Bethel, Minnesota. Scientists David Tilman, Peter Reich and others who work there are seeking agricultural techniques that heal and sustain ecosystems, studying subjects such as the way plants compete for light and nutrients.

"This is the right time and the right place to move forward in tackling one of the most urgent issues of our time how to sustainably feed a world whose population is expected to grow from 6.8 to 9 billion over the next 40 years," Sullivan said.

What's needed: business as unusual
There's no question about the urgency.

In 2000, world leaders set a goal of cutting in half by 2015 the proportion of people who had suffered from hunger in 1990.

The world is nowhere near being on pace to meet that goal, and 29 countries still suffer from "alarming levels of hunger," said Shenggen Fan, a third speaker at the symposium. He is director general of IFPRI.

Meanwhile, new threats never seem to end. Millions more people could go hungry in the next few months because of drought in Russia's wheat fields, flooding in Pakistan and food-price inflation in China and India, he said.

What's needed is "business as unusual," Fan said — smart, effective innovation like the world has never seen before. 

Sharon Schmickle covers economics, agriculture, science and other subjects for MinnPost. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

Kudos and thanks for an outstanding report on this crucial issue. Moments before, I read the brief, incomplete piece on Michele Bachmann. It's hard to believe these two stories appear in the same publication. The difference in quality is astounding.

Somebody should tell these guys the term "food security" doesn't really apply here. They're not securing the food supply from some kind of threat, they're trying to do expand the food supply to meet demand.