Is A Fully-Sustainable World Within Reach?

Is A Fully-Sustainable World Within Reach?

By Derek Brandt

It is no secret that the planet's natural resources are scarce. It is important for farmers, homeowners and urban landscapes to adopt conservation practices to keep the food supply constant and abundant so a growing population can eat. Using conservation practices is one of the best ways to conserve the resources and reduce the long-term effects on the environment.

"It is minimizing the negative effect of our actions on the ecosystem," said Mark Burbach, an environmental scientist with the School of Natural Resources (SNR) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Burbach directs the SNR Human Dimensions Program, a program that focuses on the study of people and how they affect the development and evaluation of the environment.

"We can have a big impact if we over-use chemicals and not use them properly," Burbach said. "So we want to minimize that and have an appreciation for what our actions and the consequences of our actions are."

Burbach's ideal world would be sustainable- meaning that the world's population could be fed and that natural resources are preserved for the future. It sounds like an idea that is out of reach, but according to Burbach, it can happen.

"Ecosystems are sustainable," Burbach said. "And we can meet our needs for the growing population by minimizing our impact so that our future generations can experience the natural wonders that we currently do."

Conservation practices and cultural values

Burbach studies factors that affect people's adoption of conservation practices. His work explores improvements in farm land, conservation of natural resources, soil and water quality, forests and wildlife habitat, all of which are important to growing successful crops. People connect with nature, according to Burbach, by developing a sort of empathy, or sense of connection to nature.

"For instance, park guides can influence people's connection to nature," Burbach said. "We live in a global world but local decisions matter. Developing appreciation for other people's values is important to natural resource management."

Values vary all around the world, but according to Burbach, the values that show through the most are those of basic human needs, such as satisfaction and appreciation. These values are influential and drive day-to-day behavior. This behavior can sometimes influence the environment.

Beliefs about natural resources and how to manage them vary to a certain degree by location, according to Burbach. It is essential to learn what these values are, based on location, instead of making assumptions. Communication is an important tool in learning these beliefs. He said that one can develop an appreciation for other cultures just by visiting and creating dialogue.

"Well, one thing I've done is help with study-abroad trips with students. It is not the same as reading a book about other cultures," Burbach said. "I think that is a good start to meet where you can be face-to-face with others and develop appreciation even if you don't or can't travel everywhere. We develop some appreciation for our similarities and our differences. Respect and communication is important."

The local level

Though traveling and learning about the values of other cultures is important, it is necessary to note that conservation and foodrelated issues start at the local level.

"Your individual actions, whether it be consumption of products or influence on the environment, we all have an impact on that," Burbach said. "Our local impact can have broader impacts. We contaminate a river and it goes down a stream and it can influence the people downstream. All of these things start at a local level. In Africa, in some cases you can produce a product but you can't get it to the market. That can be a challenge."

As far as what the University of Nebraska has done to enhance conservation practices and implementation on a global level, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) has played a large role. The DWRI is a research, policy analysis and education institute that works to make sure the world is using water to achieve "more crop per drop." The focus is to ensure that there is enough food for future generations.

"It (DWFI) has a presence and a mission that is going to be very important to Nebraskans and the world with water efficiency, water impact and studying human behavior so that we can minimize our footprint locally," Burbach said.

The institute is the result of a $50 million gift by the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation. It was established in May of 2010 and researches global efficiency and sustainability of water use in agriculture, quality of water resources and the human issues that affect the water decision-making process, according to

"The purpose is how do we focus and feed our growing population and how does agriculture ratchet up so we can meet that growing need for food in the world," Burbach said. "We have to think outside of the box to meet this growing demand for food in the world."

As the world's population approaches nine billion by 2050, conservation and implementation of new policies regarding food will become even more important. Researchers such as Burbach are discovering ways to grow more food than previously possible on a single acre of land, but it may not be enough. This work and research is becoming more important as population grows.

"We need to continue to better understand why people adopt conservation practices," Burbach said. "Clearly, we have been able to grow more food and increase our production and efficiencies. Food production has improved, so that is positive."

On the other hand, Burbach said, there are environmental consequences to all of this. Minimizing these consequences is crucial to ensuring a sustainable planet.

Research and collaborations

Nebraskans have been leaders in developing ways to create more food and better agricultural technology. Finding a balance of energy and research and how to improve efficiency are some of the challenges that face researchers in order to feed an additional two billion people in the not-so-distant future.

"Nebraska has been a leader with our research we have done with global connections," Burbach said. "Nebraska's agricultural products are sold all around. Our irrigation manufacturing is influential all around the world and we've had some of the leading minds."

Burbach attributed some of the progress in research to the University of Nebraska becoming a part of the Big Ten and being able to forge relationships with some of the best research schools in the U.S. According to Burbach, developing collaborations for research is only going to make the University of Nebraska a better place to conduct this type of research.

Some of this research addresses food deserts. A food desert is an area where people don't have easy access to healthy or fresh food. Perhaps it is a long distance to a grocer or urban areas that have a lack of transportation. These limiting factors all combine to create food deserts. Other research topics include how humans impact the environment- and how the environment impacts humans.

"The work that we are doing with our graduate student research is impressive," Burbach said. "We've got, all over campus, the research that is being done is critical to our understanding of developing sustainable practices and minimizing our footprint. These are all very forward-thinking opportunities that I look forward to being a part of and I think are going to be great for Nebraskans and the rest of the world."


The Morrill Act of 1862


A Message From:

Harvey Perlman

Ronnie Green

Steven Waller

Facing the Global Food Challenge

A Place Without Limits: NU's Leading Role in Ag Innovation - J.B. Milliken

"Ag is Sexy Again" as Global Need for Food Increases- Ronnie Green

Today's Students- Learning to Solve the Challenge of Feeding the World- Steven Waller

Ag Researchers' New Knowledge Benefits Nebraska, the World - Ron Yoder

"Failure is Not an Option" in Addressing Global Food Scarcity- Archie Clutter

Nebraska Innovation Campus Will Address Global Food Issues- Dan Duncan

Lenton the Founding Director of Daugherty Water for Food Institute- Roberto Lenton

Growing More Food with Less Water, Improving Global Water Condition- Marc Andreini

Dickey Reflects on Years as Dean of Extension- Elbert Dickey

Food Scarcity Information Dissemination Complex, Vital- Karen Cannon

Technology and Food

Driving Toward the Future of Biofuels, Molecular Nutrition- Paul Black

Nebraska- the Food Capital of the World?- Rolando Flores

Is a Fully-Sustainable World Within Reach?- Mark Burbach

Agricultural Efficiency Sustains Resources, Produces More- Roch Gaussoin

Technology, Teamwork and Stewardship Vital in Meeting 2050 Global Food Need- P. Stephen Baenziger

UNL Research, Extension Help Ag Producers Manage a Changing Climate- Suat Irmak

Protein Production Essential in Feeding the World- Matt Spangler

Nebraska's Irrigation Research Goes Global- William Kranz

The Plight of the Honey Bee- Marion Ellis

Global Goal: Reducing Hunger, Ensuring Food Safety and Nutrition- Tim Carr

Society's Health Reflects Changing Food Culture- Georgia Jones and Marilynn Schnepf

Steps to Building a Healthier World- Jean Ann Fischer

Economics of Food

Ag Economists- Working to Assure Abundant, Safe Food- Larry Van Tassell

Global Food Scarcity, Distribution, Roadblocks- Dennis Conley

Global Economics Research Explains Food Scarcity Challenges- Lilyan Fulginiti

World Food Supply Adequate, but Poverty is the Problem- Wes Peterson

Ag Land Reflects Value of Growing Food for the Future- Bruce Johnson

Strengthening World Economies, Increased Production Key to Food Challenges- Eric Thompson

There is No Place Like Nebraska for Meeting Food Challenges- Greg Ibach

A Land of Plenty- Exporting to the World Stan Garbacz- Stan Garbacz