COLLEGE PARK – The University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources held a summit on Oct. 4, highlighting important concerns regarding world hunger and an ever-increasing population, featuring experts in the field leading panel discussions on the latest research to combat these issues.
“Global Challenges: Building Healthy Food Systems” is the first installment of an initiative that is attempting to battle food insecurity and growing nutritional needs in developing nations, authored by the agricultural college but with full support from university officials.
“This global challenge is really urgent,” said UMD Senior Vice President and Provost Mary Ann Rankin. “We need thought leaders in this field, from academia, to government and industry, to come together and find real, workable solutions and see that they’re implemented.”
Students, faculty and researchers gathered in Hoff Theater to begin the event, welcomed by College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dean Craig Beyrouty and former United States Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. The group of around 100 people then dispersed to nine information sessions staggered throughout the day, moderated by professors and industry leaders and showcasing researchers in a variety of topics, from production methods to water needs and food safety modernization.
The problems reviewed by these innovators and specialists were outlined by Glickman through an astronomical reference, referring to present challenges as “asteroids that are gonna come down and impact food production and agricultural production.” These metaphorical rocks hurtling toward Earth include the need for society to understand the importance of food production, overall hunger and waste, along with a declining budget for agricultural research.
World Food Prize Laureate Gebisa Ejeta put these concerns into perspective during a keynote address, laying out what has been done so far and where research and innovation needs to go from here to best serve the world’s population.
Ejeta is a distinguished professor at Purdue University who grew up in Ethiopia, returning after earning a PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics to engineer crop revitalization in his home country as well as Sudan.
His accomplished career consists of a litany of notable positions, from Special Advisor in the U.S. Agency for International Develovement on agriculture, science envoy of the U.S. State Department and member of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s Scientific Advisory Board.
Ejeta explained the current global situation with a simple visual representation of today’s society. The planet was encompassed by a slightly larger sphere titled food security, then a poverty circle a bit larger and grand challenges larger still. This third sphere included global considerations on the bottom, like ecosystems, nutrition and land use and competing concerns like climate change, energy and trade inequity along the top.
“Population growth drives the food demand on two fronts,” Ejeta said, citing both a jump in total humans and the economic growth that follows. “The need to double food production in the next four decades is a tall order, and there are many reasons that make reaching this goal very formidable.”
The overarching solution centers on the outer spheres that followed, first policy and governance encompassing grand challenges and then resolve and commitment circling the entire illustration. This is where assistance from U.S. universities like UMD comes in, developing agricultural salves that address global issues but also work in specific instances, similar to Ejeta’s work in Ethiopia and Sudan. Technologies pertaining to food supply and production have increased supply in rich nations, but those innovations haven’t made it to developing countries where they’re most needed.
“The basic premise of technical systems is to help people help themselves,” Ejeta said. “The reason the [United States] continues to move forward as solidly in its foundation is because basic institutions in this country have been solved. I think developing countries need the same.”
The Purdue Center For Global Food Security (PCGFS) is at the forefront of addressing these concerns, conducting research and advocating for policies that build human and institutional capacity toward agricultural solutions. It’s most notable contribution may be a summer program on global food security that has drawn 265 students from 68 universities and 37 countries over seven years, spawning similar initiatives in the students’ home regions following participation.
“We have elevated a dialogue on campus, not only at Purdue but in these institutions where some of the participants have come [from],” Ejeta said.
Officials say that was the goal of the UMD summit, kick starting a broader conversation about global challenges that can spread throughout the university and then to other institutions. Beyrouty called it “a critical jumping off point” before introducing Ejeta, with the idea that the day’s discussions will influence future endeavors in the field.
It’s taking the work done on the home front and projecting it onto the areas of the world that simply can’t come up with the necessary improvements on their own.
“Having discoveries and breakthroughs comes naturally to us at U.S. universities,” Ejeta said. “But sometimes just going the extra mile, finding a path and taking that technology and converting it into products and innovation can make a difference in the lives of people.”