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In search of food for all

November 15, 2010


A combine in a wheat field.

The University of Minnesota and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization have outlined a shared commitment to fighting global hunger.

The U is teaming up with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization to combat global hunger

By Rick Moore

The task is formidable—finding a way to sustainably feed a world whose population is expected to grow from 6.8 billion to 9 billion over the next 40 years. And the shoes to fill are those of Norman Borlaug, the late U alum and Nobel Peace Prize winner whose “Green Revolution”—the development of high-yield wheat—saved hundreds of millions from starvation in India and Pakistan.

But the University of Minnesota is poised for the task. 

The U recently launched a new partnership with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) designed to increase food security and fight global hunger.

The partnership [between the FAO and the U] will capitalize on the dozens of programs already established at the U in food and agriculture, according to Will Hueston, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Public Health and the executive director of the Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership.

“It also allows the FAO to benefit from our collective expertise in Extension, in education, in information management, and in distance education,” Hueston says.

Hueston’s myriad titles and range of expertise are symbolic of the interdisciplinary strength the U brings to the initiative.

“We are one of very few universities in the world that have a School of Public Health, a college of agriculture (CFANS), a College of Veterinary Medicine, and a school of business (Carlson School) all on the same campus,” he notes. “We have a breadth of expertise at the University, and it’s a breadth that’s not found at many other universities.”

A multipronged approach

In addition to sustainably increasing food production, the initiative will focus on a number of areas. One is controlling the cereal rust Ug99, which is threatening wheat crops around the world. (You can read more about the U’s efforts here in “Stalking a cereal killer”.

Another effort is aimed at enhancing distance education to the more than 170 FAO member countries. The U is looking to “share knowledge across borders and boundaries through cyberspace,” says former U provost Tom Sullivan. “We are exploring a variety of e-Learning possibilities and open source tools to build capacity and exchange knowledge freely—going in both directions—between the University of Minnesota and the rest of the world.”

Another focal point is the protection of our food supply. The U is already a leader in this realm with its National Center for Food Protection and Defense, funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “Much of what they do has applications for food safety and security concerns around the world,” Hueston says.

The U will also be looking at ways to assure environmental stewardship while increasing food production around the world, which would make the next “green revolution” truly green. This entails farming more efficiently with less water, ensuring the safety of nearby watersheds, and better utilizing agricultural byproducts.

And when it comes to production, the U is uniquely positioned to address the challenges of … well, challenging climates. “We have an interest and reputation in developing types of crops to meet different weather situations,” Hueston says.

The land grant of the 21st century

In an average day, Hueston notes, many of us eat food coming from 30 or more different countries, each of which is dealing with their own issues in safety and production. “If those countries are better able to ensure the safety of their food, then our food supply here in Minnesota is safer and the world is more stable.”

By extension, the partnership with the FAO is a chance for the U to take the outreach aspect of its land-grant mission well beyond the borders of Minnesota. Minnesota agriculture products are marketed around the world and we touch every corner of the globe with our food purchases. Hence, the world has become the U campus as it relates to food.

“Global food security is a defining challenge of our time," says Al Levine, dean of CFANS and a key player in the partnership. "Through this collaboration, the University of Minnesota can put our world-class research to work, and, together with the FAO, create revolutionary strategies to provide food that is healthy, accessible, and sustainable—locally and around the world."

“It’s an opportunity for us to promote a global model of the land-grant university of the 21st century,” Hueston says.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in 2010.

Tags: All administrative: President, Provost, etc.

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Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership

UN Food and Agricultural Organization

National Center for Food Protection and Defense