March 31, 2016 | By Alex Winter-Nelson

The Critical Roles of Land Grant Universities in Supporting Resilient Food Systems for Food Security

The Importance of Resilient Food Systems

Food security requires that all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. To meet this requirement, we need resilient food systems that are capable of adapting to changing conditions, withstanding disruptions, and recovering quickly when they are assaulted. In particular, these systems must adapt to a changing climate, withstand the effects of political instability, and recover from food safety failures or production shocks when they occur. Even as food systems evolve to meet these challenges, they can only deliver food security if we simultaneously ensure the resilience of vulnerable people, often smallholder farmers in developing countries, who need control over productive assets, appropriate technologies, supportive market and public institutions, and the knowledge to adapt and thrive in a changing world. 

The challenge of building greater resilience in our food systems and among currently food insecure people is complex and multidimensional. It requires attention to each aspect of the food system itself and awareness of the particular environmental and social constraints facing food insecure people.  Addressing it requires integration of expertise that is usually dispersed across different professions, institutions, and fields of study. In the United States, land grant universities with long track records in agricultural research and education are uniquely suited to provide the needed scientific discovery and human capacity building to produce critical food systems innovations. 

Roles for the Land Grant University

At a roundtable convened by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last November, representatives from land grant universities including the University of Illinois, Cornell University, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, Purdue University, and the University of Nebraska explored the specific features that equip land grant universities to play a critical role in building resilient food systems for food security. This roundtable revealed several ways that land grant universities are distinguished from other actors in the area including:
  1. Staying power: Research in food and agriculture requires continuous focus that is specific to environmental and social contexts. Public research universities have been actively engaged in food systems research for over 100 years, with research presence throughout the United States and around the world. Leading food and agricultural research institutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were modeled after U.S. land grant universities and continue to partner with them. For example, in 1963 with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the University of Illinois helped to establish Njala University of Agriculture in Sierra Leone. Njala has since produced a long line of distinguished scientists and administrators and its partnership with the University of Illinois continues in both research and instruction for building better food systems. 
     Students and faculty from the University of Illinois and Njala University, Sierra Leone.  Land grant universities have a long record of sustained partnerships in developing countries.
  1. Scope: Food systems are multidimensional, involving plant and animal biology, engineering, logistics, nutrition, economics, policy, psychology, and other fields of inquiry. Expertise in this range of areas must be integrated to achieve the most effective interventions to improve food systems. Land grant universities are unique in that they bring together experts in these disciplines as well as regional experts and can integrate knowledge in a way that is sensitive to food systems considerations.  We see such an integrated approach in programs like International Food Security at Illinois, The Center for Global Food Security at Purdue University, the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation at Michigan State, the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative, the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at Missouri, and the Water for Food Institute at Nebraska.
  2. Knowledge dissemination: Transformation of our food system requires that new knowledge be integrated into people’s daily lives. Land grant universities have unmatched capacity for mainstreaming new knowledge by the education of students, extension to the public, and partnerships with the private sector. Land grant universities have over 100 years of experience providing relevant information to food producers and consumers. That history is being leveraged to improve knowledge of food production, climate adaptation, nutrition, and health through USAID-university partnerships like Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services (INGENAES) based at the University of Illinois. 
     Farmers, extension providers and university personnel working together in the INGENAES program with gender-sensitive training that links agriculture and nutrition in Zambia.
  3. Public Interest: Many necessary forms of research and education are not attractive to the private sector. Land grant universities provide critical research and education in areas like animal disease, water management, soil health, plant efficiency, and food choices where private research and development is insufficient.
Since their establishment, land grant universities have used their expertise in food and agriculture to help the food system keep pace with ever greater pressures. Individually, various land grant universities have each made remarkable contributions to the cause of ensuring food security. Collectively, a network of select land grant universities working in coordination to leverage their particular strengths could do even more. Through the Feed the Future Innovation Laboratories, USAID is tapping that collective potential for universities to help build resilient food systems. Those innovation labs focus the expertise of consortia of universities and other agencies to address themes like sustainable intensification, climate-resilient crops, assets and market access, soybean value chains, and post-harvest loss. 

Transformation of the food system implies large scale, coordinated efforts in multiple dimensions that transcend private interest groups, national boundaries, and scientific disciplines.  Land grant universities offer exceptional capacities to address the challenge.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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