World faces looming food and water challenges, say academic researchers

Climate change, water shortages and the loss of farmland to pollution and urban sprawl are making it increasingly difficult for farmers to feed the world’s growing population, agricultural scholars from four continents said at an international symposium held Oct. 16-19 at Washington University in St. Louis.

“As the climate changes, it’s posing major challenges for food production right now, and these problems are likely to grow much more critical in the future,” said plant biologist and symposium moderator Barbara Schaal, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor at Washington University.


Speaking at the Fifth International Symposium on “The Role of Research Universities in Addressing Global Challenges,” Schaal said support for university-based agriculture research is critical as the world struggles to feed more people and to feed them better and to do it in a way that protects our environment.

Schaal, a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is one of 15 academic and industry leaders recently named to advisory board for the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, a new initiative that aims to create public-private partnerships to boost technological innovation in agriculture.

At the symposium, Schaal joined with top agricultural scholars from universities in China, India and Australia, to explore key global challenges related to food and water, including:

  • Severe drought in the western United States is threatening the viability of vast regions of cropland that depend on irrigation for food production. While agriculture now consumes 80 percent of water used in the United States, growing water shortages will place increasing pressure on farmers to produce more with less water.
  • Climate change is predicted to increase the likelihood of extreme weather conditions with big swings in precipitation, leaving farmers in India scrambling to develop new crop strains capable of handling both floods and droughts.
  • With an estimated 6 million new mouths to feed each year, China is expected to gobble up more and more of the world’s food supply as rising personal incomes fuel demand for safe, nutritious and higher quality food products. About 60 percent of the world’s soybean exports now end up in China.

Other presenters included Bingsheng Ke, president of China Agricultural University; Sudhir Kumar Sopory, vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in India; and Peter Høj, vice chancellor and president of the University of Queensland in Australia.

While the challenges are daunting, the world’s research universities are making progress in addressing some of the globe’s most vexing food and water problems. Among those highlighted at the symposium:

  • Research in St. Louis at Washington University and the Danforth Plant Science Center to develop new strains of nutrient-rich cassava, a food crop that is a mainstay of diets throughout much of Africa. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the research hopes to develop cassava that’s high in vitamins and micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, which are often lacking in Third World diets.
  • In India, which has 16 percent of the world’s population but only 4 percent of the world’s freshwater supplies, university researchers are implementing new systems for to improve rainwater harvesting, prevent the pollution of surface water and ease demand on shrinking reserves of groundwater. About 85 percent of India’s population depends on groundwater for fresh water needs.
  • Chinese universities are sponsoring workshops for journalists to help them better understand the science behind genetically modified foods. The sessions are intended to educate the public about the potential benefits of genetically modified crops, such as a new corn hybrid being developed at Chinese universities.

Generally, Schaal and other academic leaders expressed optimism that political leaders in their home nations are coming to grips with the dangers posed by climate change and slowly moving more resources into research to address these problems.

Schaal echoed concerns raised in a recent presidential advisory report of the future of agricultural preparedness in the United States, calling for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shift more of its research portfolio toward competitive, university-based projects that reward researchers for being agile, creative and innovative.

Sponsored by Washington University’s McDonnell International Scholars Academy, the annual symposium is intended to foster collaboration and joint research and education programs among universities in the academy’s 28-member consortium.