September 3, 2019 | By Shen Ming Lee

Next Generation 2019 – Innovate for a Better Food Future

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2019 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 20 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2019, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.

In high school, I learned about non-renewable energy and fossil fuels. Despite the world's overwhelming focus on the scarcity of fossil fuels, I distinctly remember my biology teacher, Emma Campbell, focusing not on an impending energy shortage, but on water shortage. She said that in 10 years, the world will be facing a major water crisis. That was in 2013. I didn’t understand the severity and immediacy of what she was saying until I discovered the great South African drought.

In May 2016, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, was on the verge of completely running out of water. Scorched rocks, the dilapidated remains of dead trees, and dried-up rows of Chenin Blanc vines covered the town. Cape Town looked like a scene right out of the Sahara Desert. Producing enough food to sustain Cape Town's population was a major issue and limiting exports to maintain minimum food supply levels was high on the government's priority agenda. Not to mention the challenges the wine industry would face in exporting wine; the thought of all that lost Chenin Blanc was almost too hard to bear for the rest of the world.

Fast forward to 2018, Cape Town managed to momentarily avert the crisis. Day Zero, the doomsday moment when municipal government would have to turn off taps and force citizens to queue at security-guarded water pipes, was pushed back indefinitely. Key word—indefinitely. Dominique Sian Doyle, former Energy Policy Officer of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, told me what it’s really like to live in these dire conditions:

“Day Zero as we call it is two days away. One side of town has been without water for three days. The people there are very poor, with an unemployment rate of 70 percent. They cannot afford to fetch or buy water. It's a giant scary mess. I am not sure how we are going to get water in. It’s really interesting to see how the town continues to wait till the last minute to start saving water. Still toilets are being flushed, baths are being taken, swimming pools filled. Sometimes I think the only way humanity will learn is the hard way.”

When Dominique told me this, I understood what it really meant to not have water. Drought is one of the major constraints affecting the food security and livelihoods of more than two billion people.Severe droughts in places like California and South Africa have drastically affected agricultural productivity. Soon enough, Day Zero will loom over more countries. How is the world going to cope?

On March 20-21, 2019, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs brought together business and policy leaders, social entrepreneurs, and innovators to speak about the issue of water scarcity at the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, DC. I was fortunate enough to attend as a Next Generation Delegate and be part of the discussion on managing water for a nutritious food future. One of my favorite memories from the symposium was when Alesha Black, Managing Director of the Global Food and Agriculture Program at the Council, spoke about what makes water personal to her at the symposium’s solution session. What I remember most from her story is this: Water isn’t just about quenching thirst and showering, it’s about dignity. Dignity to clean yourself and your children. Dignity to be able to have a meal on the table. Dignity. Simply put, the people of Cape Town were being stripped of their dignity.

By 2050, drought-prone countries like South Africa, Namibia, and Israel will be incredibly water stressed. To maintain agricultural productivity in these regions, optimization of resources will become critical to sufficiently nourish the world. The need for greater optimization points us to the need for better precision agriculture and the use of indoor farming systems that minimize water usage.

In a water-scarce world, we need to innovate for a better food future. We need to innovate like the Israelis, who pioneered the use of vermiculite (a mineral substrate that rations water release and provides anchorage for roots) as a growing medium for hydroponic growing systems. When you're a country with one of the highest water shortages in the world, you're forced to innovate and adapt to ensure long-term water security.

My newest book, Hungry For Disruption: How Tech Innovations Will Nourish 10 Billion by 2050, explores such technological innovations in food for the coming decades. With urgent pressures put on our global food systems, we simply must harness the power of science and technology to transform it. My book unlocks that power. 

To embrace the power of science and technology, we need open-minded and innovative leaders. Clearly, our global food system is broken and in need of large-scale disruption. Time is running out. We need a greater sense of urgency and the openness to embrace new innovations for a more sustainable, food-secure, and nutritious food system for all. 


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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Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.