Supporting Global Research and Outreach for Land-Grant Universities Makes Good Sense in Today’s World

AGNR Student Trip to Liberia

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

June 3, 2024 Jimmy Smith and Ann Leger

The Land Grant University System established by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 led a wave of agricultural education, research, extension and innovation that has resulted in exponential U.S. economic growth. Because of this, an argument can be made that federal and state funded research should focus locally on U.S. issues and ignore the international stage. Take food availability for instance, when we have so many food insecure individuals here at home, as part of the argument inherent in isolationism vs. globalism, some believe that international concern is misdirected.

We believe otherwise. Responding to global challenges and opportunities is not only a humanitarian good, but represents enlightened self-interest here at home. As such, we believe it is the responsibility of Land Grant Universities like the University of Maryland to facilitate access to the rapidly growing agricultural markets in developing countries, which have expanded in response to increasing population and income, offering new commodity and input marketing opportunities for U.S. farmers. To achieve this, Land-Grants require increased funding from such organizations as USDA-NIFA, NSF, and USAID for research, faculty travel programs, student study abroad programs, and more.

Our nation’s 106 Land Grant Universities share a common mission, with a focus on teaching agriculture, science, and engineering as well as other scientific and classical studies, in the interest of the public good. Today they range from large public institutions like the University of Maryland and Penn State to private colleges like MIT and Cornell. These universities were established to solve grand challenges that the U.S. faced at its inception, and they are uniquely positioned to tackle today’s grand challenges such as food security, community health, technology integration, and advancing agricultural practices with a humming engine of world-renowned researchers, students, and federal, state, and local partners as the backbone. But to do that effectively, we must recognize that, in today’s world, local challenges are global challenges, and vis versa.

Agriculture in particular will play a major role in addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, since they relate to globally interconnected issues such as poverty, food insecurity, gender disparity (high percentage of the global labor force are women), limited access to prime agricultural land and clean and accessible water, public health, and environmental stewardship.

Major events in recent years have highlighted the interconnected nature of the challenges the world faces from the impacts of war and novel viruses on supply chains and food insecurity to the downstream effects of climate change and increasingly variable weather systems.

It is not a foregone conclusion that the world will be able to feed itself by the time the global population stabilizes at over 10.5 billion people in the 2050s. Such a population will require 60% more food than is produced now, on a land base that some say is already reaching its ecological limits. Global food systems, and the value chains that underpin them are fragile and highly susceptible to changing disease outbreaks, weather and geopolitical conditions.

In 2022, the war in Ukraine immediately shut down the flow of 20% of the world’s wheat supply, just as the effects of climate change have been bringing drought, extreme weather conditions and new pests to wheat growers around the world. UMD’s efforts to grow a global wheat breeding consortium leverage the extensive research facilities of our Land-Grant-supported experiment stations to ensure the availability of new varieties of wheat that are adapted to resist the specific pests and diseases and withstand the climatic environments in the localities they are intended for. Maintaining a global supply of wheat is critical to food security everywhere. And food security is as essential for political stability as it is for maintaining global health.

In Africa, where some of the most vulnerable populations struggle to build technological capacity amid increasing food insecurity, Land-Grant Universities are poised to contribute science-based community solutions through the exchange of research and ideas. Together with partners from African universities and research centers, we are able to effectively merge fundamental, academic research with on-the-ground transfer of knowledge through extension-based programs for a two-way collaboration that enhances agricultural practices both in the U.S. and in Africa.

Climate change, perhaps the most intractable and over-arching concern for society will impact underdeveloped nations most profoundly. And as we’ve seen time and again the social and political unrest and human suffering that stems from natural disasters, economic failures and widespread food insecurity in one corner of the world can easily destabilize another part of the world, and quickly set off a chain reaction that reaches us all.

Furthermore, because of its proximity to the U.S. Capitol, the University of Maryland has a comparative advantage that no other Land-Grants possess, an opportunity to further drive international development through partnership with such federal players as USDA and USAID, and globally with the World Bank, IMF and the International Food Policy Research Institute, among others.

For more than 150 years, our nation’s leaders have recognized that charging universities with developing problem solvers and creative thinkers is key to addressing the challenges our nation faces– and now we must take that same approach as we tackle global-scale issues in collaboration with the rest of the world.