Food is central to the human existence. Its production and consumption provide the energy and nutrients to produce the human capital that fuels creativity, cultures, and economies. Constraints and shocks to food and nutrition security anywhere in the food system affect all aspects of life, and they are not inconsequential. Highly functioning, robust food systems produce productive human capital and vibrant societies, while poorly functioning food systems create food insecurity that can ignite social and political instability. Increasing the efficiency of agricultural systems has always been a source of economic growth that promotes the transition from agrarian, low-income economies to robust emerging markets. But the lack of opportunity in the agricultural sector and spikes in food prices can drive migration patterns, which contributes to instability. Whether it is productive agriculture that lifts people out of poverty and food insecurity, or failing food systems that drive instability, food is fundamental to the functioning of the world.
There was much discussion during the course of this initiative about the need for increased production versus greater efficiencies along the rest of the food system. While there is discussion on the level of increase required in food production in the coming decades, it is sure to be a significant amount. Given the large gap between the amounts of food currently being produced, the likely impact of climate change on food production, and the estimated demand by 2050, there is much to do—not only to meet projected needs, but also to ensure increases are not achieved at the expense of the natural resource base on which food production depends. There is no question that greater efficiencies need to be made throughout the food chain. Yet it is clear that significant increases in production will also be required.
Changes are needed in incentive structures throughout the food system. Food systems are created through the interaction of a series of individual components that are responsive to social, political, and environmental influences. To understand how to change systems, we must understand the structure, dynamics, and incentives— economic, political and cultural—within the systems sought to be changed. Existing relationships have fostered long-term fiscal and political investments, shaped human behavior, and influenced social norms.
Changing systems to meet future demands requires designing new incentive structures, including market forces affected by research on outcomes, regulations, or guidelines that promote food and nutrition security. Across high-, medium-, and low-income countries, education about food systems, its function, and outcomes, will be critical for change.
Helping low-income countries better address their own challenges will be critical in the global food security picture. This is perhaps most important in Africa, where half of the population growth between now and 2050 will occur. In-country universities are critical for the education of the vast number homegrown scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers and others needed to build sustainable food and nutrition systems. Primary and high school graduates are necessary, but are not sufficient to Harnessing University Discovery, Engagement, and Learning to Achieve Food and Nutrition Security 123 build countries alone. If well-educated, the emerging youth bubble will be a force of economic and social growth, but if not, will be source of social and political instability.
While the challenges of food and nutrition security are global, many production issues are local. The use of new sensor technologies, geographic information systems, and the rapidly increasing power of information storage and processing can be powerful contributors to sustainable production. Likewise, data from social media, purchasing patterns, and other online sources hold potential to understand the structure, behavior, and function within food systems. This convergence of technologies will cause information science to play a major role in future research on food and nutrition systems. All of this is important, in various ways, to low- and highincome countries.
The challenges of food and nutrition security are embedded in complex systems, which require transdisciplinary science to achieve solutions. These themes take into account a new understanding and wide acceptance that transdisciplinary efforts are needed to solve pressing global issues, like food and nutrition security. The report also emphasizes the need for greater community engagement to identify and define research issues, and actively interact with communities throughout the entire research process. Accordingly, this report is different from past reports. Earlier reports might well have recommended a narrowly designed “top 10″ challenges, focused solely on hard science and production agriculture. With complex systems, the need for transdisciplinary science, and community engagement in mind, this report lays a new foundation for action and recommends the following next steps:
The Commission recommends APLU play an important role in fostering discovery, engagement, and learning activities among public research universities, which should include individual institutions, groups of universities, and their partners in order to achieve domestic and global food and nutrition security. This will require a major, sustained effort by APLU.The Commission recommends APLU and its members further develop recommendations for reducing institutional barriers to transdisciplinary research. This would include identifying and learning from promising approaches already being undertaken at public research universities, designing mechanisms to remove barriers, and making recommendations based on best practices. APLU should discuss and report on these activities at its annual meeting and other appropriate venues.
The Commission recommends APLU, in close coordination with its members, develop and undertake advocacy efforts in support of this report, including making funding recommendations, as appropriate.
With enactment of the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) in July of 2016, Congress required the administration to develop a “whole of government approach” to combat global food insecurity and authorized appropriations for such programs for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. The pending reauthorization of the legislation provides an opportunity to build on the progress already made as a result of GFSA and act on the recommendations of the Commission. Similarly, with the Farm Bill due for reauthorization, Congress will have the opportunity to expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commitments to global food security and expand the Department’s partnership with U.S. universities. Hence, there is an opportunity to coordinate both international and domestic food and nutrition security efforts.
APLU and its member universities advocate to policymakers for a “whole-of-government” approach within the federal government. A whole-of-government effort would encourage multiple federal departments and public agencies to work across their portfolios to achieve a significant goal. Such an approach would help to focus existing resources and should allocate new resources, given the critical importance of domestic and global food security.
Historically, such whole-of-government efforts have often been coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This approach should be replicated to achieve the domestic and global food security recommendations of this report. Undoubtedly, an OSTP process would also involve significant leadership from USDA and USAID, as well as deep engagement by several other government agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and others.
An explicit goal of the whole-of-government approach—in collaboration with the university community and stakeholders, including the private sector—must be to mobilize private sector and foundation resources to address the challenges. Given current federal budget constraints, it is important to make the case for resources to tackle these consequential issues. The report does not quantify the amount of those resources, but it is clear the need will be substantial for this huge and complex set of challenges.
The Commission also recommends the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada together sponsor collaborative research partnerships with universities and their partners to advance the recommendations of this report.
The Commission recommends the Canadian and Mexican governments work, as appropriate, with their universities and research entities to advance the recommendations of this report in their respective countries.
A substantial amount of current research in the region is bilateral, but more trilaterally funded competitive grants, which would require involvement from universities in each of the three countries, would provide even greater impact.
Many universities have already identified their own “grand challenges” or in some way have established campus-wide research goals. No doubt this is an important process for universities, especially in these days of tightening budgets. In connection with current processes, public universities and their partners are encouraged to identify challenges and related activities in this report that they might undertake. As noted above, APLU has an important role in fostering this work.
Undoubtedly in that process, universities will further define or focus the challenges and activities set forth in this report. The Commission also recognizes public research universities alone will not solve the global food and nutrition security crisis. As universities work on the challenges, it will be important to partner with public and private entities in agriculture, public health, nutrition, health care, and beyond.