Research and Economic Development, Office of


Date of this Version



University of Nebraska–Lincoln Office of Research and Economic Development (2010). Proceedings of the 2010 Water for Food Conference. Lincoln.


Copyright 2010, The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. All rights reserved.


Executive Summary

“I see the linkage of the water crisis and the future of global poverty, yet I don’t see the general awareness of this issue. Finally, after 25 years of tragically reduced investment in agricultural development, we hear the talk of food security; we see significant increases in the investment that is necessary. Yet I don’t hear the talk of securing water for food,” Jeff Raikes, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in his keynote address at the 2010 Water for Food Conference.

Hosted by the University of Nebraska with the support of the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation, the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto Company, the conference brought together more than 300 scientists and decision makers from universities, the private sector, governments and nongovernmental organizations around the world to discuss the challenge of growing more food using less water.

Raikes concluded in his keynote address: “If we don’t change, if we don’t innovate across the spectrum of all the levers that we can pull, if we don’t take an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to this challenge, we are not going to be able to feed the world.”

The need to use all available tools – technological, political, societal and institutional – was echoed throughout the conference and reflected in the diversity of topics, perspectives and expertise represented.

Innovating Across the Spectrum

The Gates Foundation is concerned about water-scarce areas, Raikes said, because that is where people are hungriest and global poverty is greatest. Business as usual will not suffice in overcoming water shortages, and although Raikes observed limitations in applying past solutions to the future, he also expressed optimism that we can achieve food security for all people by combining the best practices of today – such as seed technology, market access and soil management – with advances to come, particularly in helping small farmers by developing affordable water storage, pumps and micro-irrigation technologies. Policies, including incentives that provide adequate water resources for farmers, also will be key.

Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University’s Earth Institute demonstrated that tripling Africa’s rainfed cereal crop production from 1 ton to 3 tons per hectare is not only possible, but achievable. It can be accomplished without increasing water use by reducing losses from evapotranspiration at higher plant densities of 3 tons per acre. “This is what I would like to call the Green Revolution bonus,” Sanchez said. “As you go from 1 to 3 tons per hectare, you can get a lot more water.” Successes in Malawi and the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project have shown that distributing fertilizer and seed increases production dramatically. These successes have led to the Global Food Security Trust Fund, a global fund for smallholder agriculture. “I’d like to redefine the goal of the Green Revolution as going from 1 to 3 tons per hectare,” Sanchez said. Sanchez also described efforts to create a digital soil map of the world to better manage local needs by, for example, pinpointing areas requiring additional nutrients or erosion control and identifying regions with a higher probability of drought stress.

David Molden of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) urged prioritizing water access for the poor, ecosystem enhancement and improved water governance. He reinforced Sanchez’s point that the greatest opportunity lies in low-yield agriculture; increasing yields from 1 ton to 2 tons per cubic meter of water increases water productivity 74 percent. “This is the area for the biggest potential. … This is also the area where there’s high poverty. If we can go and narrow in on that focus, we get two big wins all at the same time.” Rather than focusing on the distinction between rainfed and irrigated agriculture, Molden encouraged looking at appropriate available solutions in a given location as well as considering large-scale innovative solutions. He offered six problem sets for the future: 1) upgrade rainfed systems with better water and soil management; 2) revitalize under-performing irrigation systems; 3) learn to manage groundwater sustainably; 4) reuse urban wastewater safely; 5) transform water governance and management; and 6) improve information systems.

Irrigation must play a large role in a future Green Revolution for Africa, said Ken Cassman of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). The 1960s Green Revolutions in Asia and Nebraska relied primarily on irrigation, which allowed both areas to successfully and dramatically increase productivity, Cassman said. “If [Sub-Saharan African] agriculture is much more like the harsher rainfed environments of the western Corn Belt, can rainfed agriculture do it alone?” he asked. Sub-Saharan Africa has sufficient water resources to support irrigation, which in turn provides stable yields and generates income to support investment in associated industries and infrastructure.

Although irrigation maximizes yields, greatest net income occurs below maximum yields after factoring in additional water costs, said Richard Cuenca of the National Science Foundation (NSF). What incentives, he asked, can be used to encourage growers to consider other objectives besides reaching maximum production? Cuenca also cautioned that climate change will undoubtedly affect future food production, although models disagree by how much. An International Food Policy Research Institute study predicted that by 2050, food production of major rainfed and irrigated cereal crops will decline 13 to 42 percent, eliminating progress made in lowering child malnutrition rates.