by Steve Pueppke

I’ve been invited to give a talk on the role of fresh water fisheries in food security, and this has got me to thinking more broadly about water and how it plays into food production.  I’m concerned about the future, and I sense that I am not the only one.  There is a growing realization that water is a limiting factor—perhaps the most limiting factor—in getting adequate amounts of food into hungry mouths in poorer parts of the planet.  Water is creeping higher on the food agenda here, too.  Think, for example, of breadbasket states like California, which is in the midst of its third year of severe drought with no end in sight.

Unsettling news is everywhere.  We hear about plunging water tables, not just in India and other developing countries, but in drier parts of the US, where withdrawals for irrigation have been outpacing recharge rates for years.  We see photos of rivers that don’t quite make it to the sea as water is unsustainably diverted for other uses far upstream.  We read about land grabbing by powerful, narrow interests, not just as a means to control agriculture, but as a stealth means to control water resources.  And there is no shortage of news coverage of the world’s changing climate and its potential impacts on rainfall patterns.

Because of my background, I tend to filter these disturbing reports through the lens of land-based crop production.  But in preparing my talk, I’ve been forced to think, too, about a parallel source of food security: calories that come directly from the water.  Aquaculture figures prominently into this equation, but fishing is important, too.  Stephen Hall and his collaborators (Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 110, 8393-8398) document the disproportionate role that wild-caught fish play in meeting human protein needs in more than a dozen developing countries.  Those interested in fish (including some of our very own, see Global Food Security 3, 142-148) have struggled for years to raise awareness of the significance of finned creatures in feeding poor people.  But there is still lack of appreciation for this second pathway that water takes in helping to feed people.

I am not the only one boxed in by disciplinary bias in approaching what is in fact a wicked systems problem.  Some like me bring the perspective of land-based agriculture.  Others focus on fish.  Still others take a broad natural resources approach with no particular emphasis on water as a means of food production.  The MSU Water Community has been recently brought up to full strength, with new expertise joining old expertise aligned along each of these and other perspectives.  If we want to attack the water-food problem or any other problem having water as a major component, how do we match up and integrate the right kinds expertise on campus, creating the most productive research teams to get the job done?

In a perfect world, someone who has spent his or her entire career trying to increase crop yields in Africa would immediately grasp the value of a new colleague who knows a lot about water.  Or vice versa.  But in the real world understanding across disciplinary boundaries rarely appears spontaneously, and when it does, progress usually comes in fits and starts.  Minds occasionally do meet serendipitously, but the process is often slow and inefficient at big, complicated places like MSU.

That’s why with support from the Office of the Vice-President for Research and Graduate Studies and other campus offices, ESPP is about to roll out WaterCube.  We want to maximize the chances that water researchers at MSU will find one another, click as a research team, and solve an important problem—either a water and food security issue or some other crucial problem centered on water.

WaterCube is not your grandfather’s program for awarding internal grants.  There are no pre-defined research goals, no grant proposals, and no review panels.  Instead, individual water faculty willing to invest a bit of their own research funds will earn a token that has much more value.  But the value can only be realized if the token is united with tokens from one or more faculty partners willing to commit to a cool new research project.  The token holders get to decide on the nature of the project.

We call this process cubation (toking was also considered but we thought that this word might be misinterpreted).  Cubation is designed to create novel water teams and provide them with seed funding to tackle something new.  We want to minimize transaction costs, and we want team members to have fun discovering one another and working together.  So within very broad bounds, it is up to the cubation team to define objectives and the scope of the work, to make progress towards a solution, and ultimately to attract external funding.

All of the major problems that count these days require complex solutions that transcend what any one discipline can offer.  Cubation is about putting people together in the right configurations to tackle the right problems.  Let the experiment begin.