A new Global Academy is bringing experts together to find solutions to the world's key food issues.
For scientists such as Geoff Simm, who believe that teaching and research should have far-reaching impact, leading Edinburgh’s newest Global Academy could be considered the perfect opportunity.
There can be no brief more exacting – nor vital – than helping to transform agriculture so that a planet buffeted by changing climate and spiralling population can continue to feed itself. It is a complex and vast undertaking that demands not just imagination and ingenuity, but a sense of perspective and a generous measure of pragmatism.
Farming practice and food security – ensuring everyone has year-round access to a safe, nutritious, affordable diet – are inextricably, yet precariously, linked. Helping to maintain a balance between the two is the Academy’s goal, and Professor Simm, who leads the initiative, is ready for the task.
He is well placed to meet the challenge. Based in the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security will have ease of access to the School’s trailblazing research.
Academy staff will also capitalise on Edinburgh’s research excellence in science and medicine, much of it in disciplines at the leading edge of scientific inquiry, such as genomics, data science and bioinformatics. There is the prospect too of synergies with Edinburgh’s world-leading research across the humanities and social sciences in areas as diverse as law, business, economics and politics.
Professor Simm, previously Vice Principal Research at Scotland’s Rural College, believes this multi-faceted approach will benefit vulnerable communities: “Too often in the past, the focus has been on just one part of the process,” he says. “We need to look instead at the whole picture – from growing crops to taking them to market – and be aware that food is a wider cultural matter that has huge behavioural and political ramifications.”
The key issues are well documented – a global population expected to top 11 billion by the end of the century; a growing appetite in the developing world for a Western diet; and the paradox that 800 million people starve while two billion are overweight.
In addition to world-class research, teaching will play a pivotal role in helping the Academy achieve its objectives. It will offer a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses that build on the University’s reputation for online distance learning and face-to-face teaching.
The Academy’s greatest legacy, says Professor Simm, would be producing cohorts of highly trained specialists who make a difference in regions most affected by food insecurity.
“When our students become part of the next generation of leaders able to provide long-term solutions, then we can begin to be judged a success,” he reflects.
None of these advances can be achieved in isolation. The new Academy will work closely with Scotland’s Rural College and a range of partners in the UK and across Africa, Asia and Latin America, including universities, governments, charities, NGOs and industry. The CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers and the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi will also be important associates.
For Professor Simm, who has a research background in livestock genetics and breeding, casting a wide net is crucial: “Agriculture is under pressure as never before, but there is a massive effort globally to meet the UN’s sustainability goals. We want to be part of the bigger family of institutions which is tackling these problems.”
When our students become part of the next generation of leaders able to provide long-term solutions, then we can begin to be judged a success.
Sharing this vision is the University’s Chair of Medical and Veterinary Molecular Epidemiology Sue Welburn, whose research is helping to curb the threat of sleeping sickness in Uganda by reducing the number of disease-causing parasites in cattle. Her work is a prime example of the multi-disciplinary One Health approach to disease control that will serve the new Academy well. This links the health of animals and humans while setting infection in its wider ecological context.
Professor Welburn’s work does not stop there. It has also moved into the socio-political realm, seeking to provide a sustainable and cost-affordable way of fighting a disease that, until now, had been hard to detect and difficult to treat. The success of her work gives Professor Welburn a keen sense of how partnership can lead to greater gains: “I don’t think there’s a lack of talent across the planet to solve these problems,” she says. “Closer collaboration between veterinary, medical and ecological disciplines for diagnosis, surveillance and control of infections is a priority but it requires agreement on the political and financial aspects too.”
For James Smith, Edinburgh’s Vice-Principal International and Professor of African and Development Studies, this is familiar territory. Having collaborated with Professor Welburn in Uganda, he is keenly interested in how high-end research can translate into solutions that benefit the world’s poorest people. Some 70 per cent of the worst off depend on subsistence farming, fishing or pastoralism for income and food.
Science, Professor Smith believes, has often promised much – new crops, new medicines, new sources of energy – but the potential of these technologies has frequently bypassed those most in need. There is a resolve to do better at Edinburgh. The University’s four existing Global Academies, which focus on development, the environment, health, and justice, offer a versatile framework to facilitate the pursuit of strategic goals.
Professor Smith believes the Academies’ global ethos has encouraged the University to be more interdisciplinary and broader in its choice of partner institutions. “We live in a complex, interconnected world that demands new ways of doing things,” he says. “The quest for plentiful, safe, sustainable food requires a sophisticated response. We are duty bound to build relationships and pathways that ensure our work has a meaningful impact.”
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