From the boardrooms and research plots of agribusiness companies and the halls of governments to the tiny farms of the developing world, collaboration is key to making progress toward the goal of feeding a world with a growing population and limited water.
"Some people describe this as a crisis," said Jeff Raikes, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the global Water for Food Conference Thursday (May 31). But it's also "an opportunity to come together and really work in new ways that will produce … new approaches" to create more sustainable agriculture that uses less water.
Raikes spoke during the second day of the conference, hosted by the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation at the University of Nebraska and the Gates Foundation. By Thursday, 550 people from 28 nations had registered for the conference to discuss the research, education and policy implications of feeding a world whose population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, while using less water for agriculture.
Representatives of some of the world's leading agribusinesses discussed how private industry, working with governments and producers, is helping address the challenges. The panel was presented by Global Harvest Initiative. These businesses are moving beyond their traditional purviews -- selling seed or agricultural equipment, for example -- to broader, systems-based approaches that aim to help even the smallest producers become better managers of their limited land, water and other resources.
Natalie DiNicola, vice president of sustainable ag partnerships for Monsanto, pointed to the recent G-8 summit, where 45 companies, half from Africa, signed an agreement with several governments to make substantial investments in improving agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa, where the looming food shortage is most acute.
DiNicola said the tone at the summit was encouraging, a significant shift from past finger-pointing about the problem toward a focus on solutions and how both public and private entities have roles to play.
Graeme Jarvis, director of John Deere's Latin American Technology Innovation Center, said his company now is about more than putting its familiar green farm equipment in fields. Deere's new FarmSight initiative seeks to integrate technology and equipment in ways that help producers produce higher yields with fewer resources. One facet of this effort is to gather data and make it easily accessible to farmers in the field so they can make sound management decisions.
"A lot of information is going to be generated on the farm … but it'll be captured in a way that's easy to use," Jarvis said.
John Soper, vice president of crop genetics research and development at Pioneer Hi-Bred, acknowledged companies have a profit incentive to invest in the developing world, where today's subsistence farmer could be tomorrow's customer.
"It is a business opportunity and that's why we're interested in doing it," Soper said. But companies like his also are driven as good corporate citizens to help address the challenges.
"A lot of people assume large companies don't work with small farmers, and that's simply not true," he said. He noted Pioneer already has millions of customers in India and China and welcomes future growth in Africa.
The industry panelists also said the world's governments must establish and enforce free-trade policies and clear, long-term, science-based and business-friendly regulations, particularly protecting companies' intellectual property rights on their products. Soper said companies base their decisions on where they'll do business in part on the regulatory environment.
Raikes said up to 1.3 billion people in the world live on less than $1 a day, 75 percent of them in rural areas. Addressing their nutritional needs is about more than putting food in bellies. Adequately fed people have a chance to get good educations and better health care and live longer, better lives, he said.
Speaking to reporters at a media briefing, Raikes said he's confident the technologies to improve these people's lives can be created. The great challenge is to prove to small farmers they will work and convince them to adopt the practices and technologies.
Raikes and Simi Kamal, chief executive officer of the Pakistan-based Hisaar Foundation, said it's critical those efforts involve women. Women provide about 70 percent of agricultural labor in sub-Saharan Africa yet are not involved in management decisions, Kamal said at the briefing.
"What we are moving toward is building a very strong women's voice, especially in the decision-making process," Kamal said.
The conference will continue Friday (June 1) at the Cornhusker Hotel. This year's presentations focus on the conference theme, "Blue Water, Green Water and the Future of Agriculture." Conference updates can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/waterforfoodinstitute and Twitter, @waterforfood, or by following #water2012.