Harmonizing Agricultural Production and Natural Resources
Meeting the Grand Challenge at the Interface of Disciplines
The world’s population of 7.5 billion in 2019 is projected to grow to almost 10 billion by the year 2050, said Michael J. Boehm, University of Nebraska Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and Harlan Vice Chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
“If we think we have resource scarcity and wickedly complex challenges today, everything’s going to feel like it’s on steroids in the year 2050,” Boehm said.
Boehm said that people who lack access to water often struggle to raise or grow food for their family. Such food shortages have been known to lead to civil unrest, which has the power to destabilize a society, topple governments, and in extreme cases, may lead to regional or global threats to security.
According to Boehm, to effectively address the extremely complex issues society faces regarding current and future food scarcity it will take different perspectives and new collaboration. Since coming to Nebraska in 2017, he has sought to work with a community of people who are interested in finding solutions to these issues.
IANR is composed of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR), Agricultural Research Division (ARD), Nebraska Extension, and the ARD and Extension components of three departments in the College of Education and Human Sciences.
The Institute strives to combine research, teaching and Extension in a multidisciplinary, collaborative environment that encourages the best thinking and expertise from across the university and private enterprise.
Boehm said this ensures Nebraska’s competitiveness in a world of change and challenge. The Institute implements this within its six communities:
- Science Literacy
- Stress Biology
- Healthy Humans
- Healthy Systems for Agricultural Production and Natural Resources
- Computational Sciences
- Drivers of Economic Vitality for Nebraska
IANR’s communities provide a depth of knowledge that individuals cannot reach on their own.
“We actually focus more on the collaborative complexity than we do the self,” Boehm said. “The best solutions occur at the interface of disciplines.”
Using this model, IANR works to build Nebraska’s capacity in feeding a growing population, while addressing complex and ever-changing issues.
According to Boehm, Nebraska has the capacity to lead in fueling the growing population due to three main advantages. •
- First, Nebraska is an economic driver. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture cites Nebraska as a leader in the production of corn, beef, soybeans, wheat, dry edible beans, pork, grain sorghum and eggs. Nebraska also houses at least 95% of center pivot irrigation systems and provides a vast infrastructure for agriculture transportation.
- Second, Nebraska has an expansive array of natural resources. Nebraska encompasses almost 80,000 miles of streams and rivers. It also sits on nearly 75% of the High Plains Aquifer (specifically the formation called the Ogallala Aquifer), and the World Bank has even recognized Nebraska for its superb water conservation methods. Further, the wide range of soils cultivate the diverse agriculture products across the state. From Western to Eastern Nebraska, soils drive different types of crops.
- Third, Nebraska pursues resilient agricultural practices to ensure that natural resources are not depleted. Through associations, such as the Natural Resources Districts, Nebraska has a uniquely structured regulatory system. Since Nebraska has differing topography across the state, districts have been formed to specialize in specific areas.
RESILIENCE IN THE HEARTLAND
Resilience is vital to increase Nebraska agriculture production while protecting its crucial natural resources.
“You can’t talk about healthy production systems and natural resource systems without also thinking about the resilience,” Boehm said. “We need to harmonize production agriculture in a way that ensures the resilience of our natural ecosystems and rural communities — all while addressing bundles of grand challenges.”
In addition to maintaining resilient agriculture and natural resource systems, Boehm said there is a need to focus on the resilience of the people who produce the world’s food. Research conducted at the university is working to create resilience while emphasizing healthy agriculture, natural resources and humans.
For instance, Andrea Basche, assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, and her team research crop production resilience in the Resilient Cropping Systems Lab. According to Basche, Nebraska holds a key element in crop production — rich Nebraska soil. Basche and her team work to find new ways to help crops recover from drought or using cover crops to help sustain a healthy soil.
Along with rich soils, Nebraska holds another key element in crop production — sustainable water resources. According to Peter McCornick, executive director of NU’s Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI), managing water is vital for food system resiliency. DWFI aids in water management through collaboration with partners and innovative research.
This research, along with the state’s robust agricultural operations and bountiful natural resources is why Boehm feels strongly that Nebraska is in an ideal position to address issues concerning global water and food scarcity.