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Feeding a global population expected to top 10 billion by 2050 will require tremendous societal and systemic change.

The University of Nebraska’s Water for Food Institute is working to forge the type of partnerships capable of meeting those challenges, former Microsoft executive Jeff Raikes told the institute's annual conference Monday.

Raikes said organizations like Water for Food have a unique opportunity to address problems both the public and private sector may avoid through “Catalytic Collaborations" -- the title of this year’s seventh annual conference -- and what he called "catalytic philanthropy."

“The private sector is a very, very effective mechanism for allocating goods and services as long as there is a market opportunity,” said the CEO of the Raikes Foundation.

The public sector, which has significantly greater restraints on its resources, may have less of an appetite for risk, he added.

But between the two is a “sweet spot” where philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- which Raikes ran for six years -- and the Daugherty Foundation, which gave $50 million to help launch the Water for Food Institute, are able to flourish.

According to founding executive director Roberto Lenton, Water for Food is ready to begin solving the challenges of feeding a growing global population within the restrictions placed upon food producers in a closed system.

For most of its first five years, the institute identified its key goals as improving groundwater management, closing crop yield gaps, improving high-efficiency agriculture and developing policy and solutions related to water, food, health and ecosystems.

As Water for Food looks ahead, it plans to wield the results of its “catalytic philanthropy” to point to opportunities for both the public and private sectors.

It has helped develop the Global Yield Gap Atlas with the Gates Foundation, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

The atlas gives researchers a tool to study location-specific data tied to weather and evaporation compared against crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa and other places around the world, giving public agencies and those in the private sector a tool to make better decisions on how to leverage resources.

“That has already started producing really important information to what extent farmers in particular areas are achieving their full potential,” Lenton said. “Where there are big gaps, there are also big opportunities for improvement.”

Eventually, the data will be scaled down to represent the water efficiency and crop production in 30-meter long segments, giving valuable insight to local farmers on how to better use resources for maximum gain.

With tools like the Global Yield Gap Atlas in hand, Water for Food’s next director, Peter McCornick, told the conference the institute must be ready to provide solutions for specific challenges around the world.

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While Raikes' "catalytic philanthropy" can be key in providing solutions, McCornick said there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the problems Water for Food is addressing like efficient water use in crop production.

"This can't be done by providing philanthropic investment for each farmer," he said. "It has to actually be scaled up across the various communities and allow farmers to invest in their own areas.

"It's looking at these as businesses: How do the farm families become businesses rather than subsistence farmers?"

But McCornick also warned that Water for Food's mission must consider the challenge water presents outside of food production.

Referring to the World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Risk Report, he noted that water and food security have both risen on the list of threats to populations around the world.

"This is not a static situation," he said. "This is a situation if we do nothing, business as usual, we will go backwards."

The conference continues Tuesday and will close with a Heuermann Lecture by Sally Rockey, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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