Ohio farm fields. Photo © Jason Lindsey

Who would you expect to be on the red carpet at the Nobel Prize for food? Emeril Lagassi? Gordon Ramsay? Alice Waters?

Try Jimmy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and the president of Oxfam. Those were just a few of the world leaders, CEOs and policy makers in attendance at this year’s World Food Prize, which some refer to as “the Nobel Prize for Food.” They were there to learn about and discuss one of today’s most pressing issues: food security.

This is an issue we talk a lot about at The Nature Conservancy. While food and conservation may seem like unlikely bedfellows, they’re actually very closely linked. The world’s population is growing fast – it will reach 9 billion by 2050 – and all of those people need fresh, healthy food to eat. Unfortunately, this increasing demand is putting incredible pressure on our lands and waters.

In my work for The Nature Conservancy, I see these effects every day. Farmers, who are trying to grow more crops to meet growing demands, use fertilizers on their fields to increase yields. All fertilizers carry nutrients which, when applied in the right amount, help plants grow. When fertilizer is applied in too high an amount or at the wrong time, it runs off into streams and rivers and can cause a range of problems, such as toxic algal blooms and “’dead zones” like the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

We must find new ways to grow enough food to feed our rapidly-growing population. At the same time, we need to farm sustainably, so that our lands and waters are protected. The World Food Prize, organized by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, honors the people working towards those solutions. (Norman himself was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for developing research and methods that doubled wheat production in India and Pakistan, saving an estimated 2 billion people from starvation.)

Lake Erie algae. Photo © John Delmotte
Lake Erie algae. Photo © John Delmotte

Experts from around the world presented at the event and shared ideas for building a nutritious and sustainable global food supply. I was honored to talk about my work with the agricultural community in the Western Lake Erie Basin, and to share how following the 4Rs (applying the right rate of fertilizer at the right time in the right place using the right source) can have a huge effect on water quality. But what I really got out of the event was the big picture. In my day-to-day work, I tend to stay focused on the details of one place, one river, one lake. The speakers at this event remind us that to solve our food crisis, we can’t think locally, even though that may be the trend we see on the shelves in the supermarket. We have to think about the entire Great Lakes, about the entire Mississippi River watershed, about entire continents.

The presentations at the World Food Prize were a rallying cry for those of us working to address the conservation challenges that are directly linked to food security. It was a reminder that all of us are making an impact, and we can do so much more.

This was the first time I’ve been to an event of this magnitude, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The message we got from the world’s thought leaders on food scarcity was clear: “It’s time to get to work. We have lakes to keep clean and people to feed.”

Consider the challenge accepted.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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