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Leaders join commission to solve food security

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN -- Facing food and nutrition security challenges in the U.S. and abroad that pose significant humanitarian, environmental, and national security risks, a national commission that included three Purdue University leaders announced a comprehensive, coordinated effort to solve these problems.

The Challenge of Change Commission is comprised of 34 prominent university, government, non-governmental organizations, and business leaders. Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize Laureate, distinguished professor or agronomy, and director of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security, served on the Challenge of Change’s executive committee. Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture, and Vic Lechtenberg, special assistant to the president, served as Commission members.   

Nearly 1 in 9 people were food insecure in 2014-16, including 42.2 million people in the U.S. Food security problems – including hunger, obesity, malnutrition, low crop yields, inadequate food storage, poor sanitation, and the political instability they create are poised to intensify unless there is a deliberate effort to create true global food and nutrition security. The search for sustainable solutions grows even more complicated in the face of a rapidly growing world population, limited natural resources, changing climates, and evolving diets that demand more high-value food products.

While many important efforts are being undertaken to address the vast array of problems that comprise food and nutrition insecurity, a comprehensive, holistic approach that fully engages arguably the world’s greatest scientific and educational resource in food and nutrition security – public research universities – has been lacking until now. The Challenge of Change Commission, which the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities convened with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, began with the understanding that public research universities – with their broad academic, research, and community expertise and experience – were uniquely positioned to address the complex and diverse challenges of food and nutrition insecurity. 

Gebisa Ejeta, established the Center for Global Food Security at Purdue in 2011 to provide global leadership, build human and institutional capacity, and strengthen and grow partnerships. As an executive committee member of the Commission, Ejeta speaks to the significance of the report and the contributions he believes Purdue has and will continue to make.

 “Our world continues to face food security challenges, such as the current famine afflicting over 20 million people in the Horn of Africa, that pose a growing global crisis,” he said. “Our land-grant and public research university systems have a vital role to play in responding to such crises through knowledge and technologies our international educational and research efforts generate. Purdue has shown leadership through its array of programs and partnerships such as the Sorghum & Millet and Food Processing Innovation Labs as well as the Purdue Improved Crop Storage and the Purdue Post Harvest Initiative, and will continue to join with colleagues across disciplines, universities, industry, and continents to move the goals of this report forward.”

The report focuses on the importance of educating a new generation of transdisciplinary problem-solvers, a goal which Commission member Akridge, agrees is critical.

 “Agricultural, food, natural resource, and life sciences have entered an era where our work must converge across disciplines to meet the grand challenges the report lays out so clearly,” Akridge said. We have seen this transdisciplinary model come alive at Purdue through the Indiana Corn and Soybean Innovation Center, the centers for Global Food Security, Food Safety Engineering, Discovery Park, and numerous other collaborations. Aggressive change depends on crossing and breaking down traditional disciplinary boundaries and our faculty, students, and now, alumni, are doing just that in industry, academe, and government positions throughout the world.

 “The world’s food system is broken, yet demand is increasing at a record pace,” said North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, who served as chair of the Challenge of Change Commission and was formerly provost and dean of the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. “We can’t just grow our way out of this global crisis. Issues of infrastructure, food safety, distribution and more must be addressed as part of a long-term, sustainable solution if we are to effectively address global hunger.”

Vic Lechtenberg, a former dean of Purdue’s College of Agriculture and now a special assistant to Purdue President Mitch Daniels, stressed Purdue University’s support of the Commission report and pledge to continue the work occurring throughout the university. “Purdue, like public research universities around the country, has the capability to make significant contributions to addressing the complex issues surrounding food security. We also have the commitment and determination,” Lechtenberg said.

At an event in Washington, D.C., members of the Challenge of Change Commission unveiled their much-anticipated report and action plan, which centers on harnessing the vast academic, research, and leadership capabilities of public research universities to address the interdisciplinary challenges of food and nutrition security. In addition to the Commission members, more than 100 individuals from universities, the public and private sector, and non-governmental organizations were engaged in the project as members of interdisciplinary working groups or expert advisers. Similarly, more than 75 organizations were invited to provide comment and feedback throughout the process.

The Commission report defines seven challenges for solving global food and nutrition insecurity and details the steps that public research universities, along with partners, must take to address them:

Challenge 1: Increase yields, profitability, and environmental sustainability simultaneously.

Challenge 2: Develop the varieties and breeds needed for sustainable food systems.

Challenge 3: Decrease food loss and waste through more efficient distribution systems.

Challenge 4: Create and share resources that serve all populations.

Challenge 5: Ensure inclusive and equitable food systems.

Challenge 6: Address the dual burdens of undernutrition and obesity to ensure full human potential.

Challenge 7: Ensure a safe and secure food supply that protects and improves public health.

  After spending a year identifying these challenges and pathways to achieving them, the Commission detailed its findings and recommendations, which are centered on the need for a transdisciplinary approach to break down silos that have too often prevented the issues surrounding food security to be fully addressed.

The Commission urges that specific attention must be paid to the following broader areas in order to achieve food and nutrition security:

Broaden the Focus Beyond Yields – More food must be produced, but there must be greater efficiencies in food storage and distribution, particularly in the context of limited natural resources.

Change the Food System’s Incentive Structure – 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.

Develop the Capacity of Universities in Low-Income Countries – Helping low-income countries better address their own challenges will be critical in the global food security picture.

Leverage Technology, Big Data, and Information Science Information – 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.