Living in 2014 but Thinking in 2050 – The Importance of International Collaboration

October 29, 2014

Ronnie D.Green, Ph.D. 
Vice President and IANR Harlan Vice Chancellor, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska USA



The grand global challenge of the 21st century is to sustainably feed a growing global population expected to approach 10 billion within a few decades from now, the so-called “2050 challenge”.  This challenge is multi-faceted in that it requires considerable innovation and advancement in agricultural science and innovation to increase efficiency and output of farming and livestock production systems, while concurrently enhancing natural resource stewardship and sustainability with a reduced environmental footprint.  Combined with the expectation that a growing global socio-economic middle-class will increase demands for animal protein in the decades ahead, major scientific and technological innovation is required to successfully meet the 2050 challenge.  At the same time, attention must be paid to the significant current problem of food and energy wastage in the global food supply chain.  This challenge will not be met without breaking down the compartmentalization of scientific education and inquiry, both across subject matter areas of expertise as well as geographic and institutional boundaries.

The 2014 Landscape

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the 21st century is affordably meeting the food nutrient demands of a global population expected to surpass 9.6 billion people at mid-century while sustaining quantity and quality of planetary natural resources and biodiversity.  This challenge is exacerbated by the additional complexities of the current global demographic, including:  1) 1 in 7 of the current global population having insufficient access to adequate foodstuffs and healthy nutrition; 2) 90% of population growth expected to occur in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where food production is already significantly challenged; 3) 70% of the world’s water withdrawals currently being for agriculture; 4) 1/3 of the world’s population being currently challenged in some way with water scarcity; 5) effects of climate variability and change expected to place further stress on the global food production chain during this time period; 6) up to 33% of current food falling in to the wastage category; and  7) increasing demand globally for dietary animal protein, ultimately expected to peak at mid-century with 3B more global consumers of meat, milk, and eggs than present today.  These realities collectively point to the need for urgent attention to technological innovation in the food production sector, particularly continued innovation of animal science, stewardship, and production systems with new emphasis on reducing the water  and natural resource footprint of meat, milk, and egg production.

Major advances in the agricultural and natural resource sciences over the past six decades have resulted in phenomenal and significant increases in efficiency of production of food, feed, and fiber.  These advances have allowed today’s global agricultural systems to more than meet total caloric requirements as global population has increased to today’s >7 billion people.  The most significant of these advances have been in enhanced animal and plant germplasm, development of increasingly sophisticated production technologies and systems, and in new and enhanced food processing technologies.

Considerable opportunity exists for scientific and technological innovation to improve agricultural and food systems – ultimately leading to “greater protein and energy production per unit of resource input”.  Perhaps the most promising areas for innovation are in development of climate and saline resilient crop and animal germplasm, better understanding and closing of the existing “yield gaps” existing in current crop and animal production systems, development and application of advanced conservation tillage methods coupled with precision and variable-rate irrigation technologies, enhanced understanding of the root zone and physiology of food crops, re-engineering of the rumen  and gut microbiome of meat and milk producing food animals to allow alternative feedstuff use in animal production, and innovation of animal and crop protection systems from mining of host-pathogen relationships.  All of these areas hold great promise for increasing efficiency of food production while concurrently increasing sustainability of water and other natural resource inputs.

The most serious obstacle to meeting these challenges is adequacy of collective public and private domain research and development funding within traditionally geographically and institutionally-defined boundaries.  While agricultural and food research funding investments have increased in a few places around the globe in recent years, notably China and Brazil, the general global trend has been the opposite (Pardey et al., 2013).  Given the gravity of the food and natural resource security global challenges lying ahead to 2050 and beyond, collaboration and cooperation across these boundaries has never been more important in order to better leverage existing and future research, education, and development resources.

Thinking Globally in Science and Education

Because higher education and research in agricultural sciences has largely been governed and driven by funding models from federal and state or provincial sources (e.g. the Land-Grant University model of the past 150 years in the United States), the motivation for research, education, and translational extension outreach has been directed largely to local boundaries and contexts.  This model and others like it around the world have a rich history of success and continue to have major impact in science and education.  However, more of the problems and challenges today are within an increasingly inter-connected global ecosystem and economy.  Additionally, a large percentage of the scientific work-force previously was heavily concentrated in the world’s major developed economies, in contrast to the world today where scientific talent and expertise is increasingly distributed across the planet.  This is a wonderful and great thing, but, requires different thinking in order to be successfully capitalized.

Such a global environment and set of challenges requires that our approaches change not only within countries and institutions (i.e. movement toward major problem-solving through multi- and trans-disciplinary research and education), but also cries out for large-scale international collaboration and discovery.  While we have seen a general trend in this direction over the past several decades, particularly around tool development (e.g. sequencing of livestock and other genomes) much more can and should be built.

As this paper is being written, I am in the middle of a two-week journey in Asia involving meetings and planning with institutional partners of the University of Nebraska.  We consciously believe that the challenges most important to our local geography in our own state of Nebraska are also international in their reach and have in the past 5 years developed a global engagement strategy for strategically linking with partners around the world who are focused on many of the same challenges in food and natural resource security.  These partnerships, spanning academic institutions, government ministries, and private industry, are principally in China, Brazil, India, the Netherlands, Turkey, and in parts of Africa and are heavily focused in the areas of water for food, plant and animal biotechnology, drought mitigation and prediction, and in food safety, processing and innovation.  On this particular trip we are working with partners in Vietnam, China, India, and Indonesia.

These international relationships, while they require substantial institutional commitment and work, are how we believe we will ultimately meet the 2050 challenge successfully by working together and further pulling from and spreading increasing amounts of human scientific talent around the world.  We also believe that our own local students from Nebraska and the U.S. will be considerably better educated by their interactions with students and collaborators from our partners in this collective work.

Organizations such as the WAAP, and its member societies, are well advised in their efforts to “internationalize” their missions and services to members in serving the greater animal sciences.  It has been wonderful to see this growth in international thinking and focus, with increasing percentages of my own American Society of Animal Science’s activities and publications coming from and focused on international education and research.

Synergistically working across international boundaries will serve to meet the 2050 challenge in global and natural resource security.  Animal scientists and animal production can lead the way.


Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  2014.  Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate.  Washington, DC, May 2014.

Pardey, P.G., J. M. Alston and C. Chan-Kang.  2013.  Public food and agricultural research in the United States:  The rise and decline of public investments, and policies for renewal. AGree Report, Washington, DC.