|Ag expert Sonny Ramaswamy
We have an existential threat,” he said. “It’s happening now. Typically when we frame our conversations about the topic of food and agriculture, we frame them from the perspective of ‘in the year 2050’ and we’re all going to wait with bated breath and something bad is going to happen. Well, it’s happening right now.”
Sonny Ramaswamy—the USDA’s Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture–says the current “existential threat” is nutritional security, drawing a difference between that issue and food security. He says in many cases, there isn’t as much of an issue with availability of calories, but rather the quality of those calories.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he and others see a lingering issue that needs the attention of everyone from farmers to the federal government. Ramaswamy said looking at all aspects of the research value chain–including distribution–needs to be promoted and encouraged.
“It’s not to say that all we need are transformative discoveries; we need a whole bunch of Ph.D.s running around discovering all new knowledge,” Ramaswamy said. “If that knowledge ends up in a book or a journal or whatever, it’s worthless. We’ve got to translate that knowledge into innovations and solutions and deliver it.”
That, he said, should be done through the cooperative extension system. In the past, it has had experts at the local level to interact with producers, but Ramaswamy said, “We’ve lost one-third of our footprint in our extension efforts across America.”
“We should all wake up and smell the coffee and be very, very concerned that we’ve allowed our extension community to lose its ability,” he added.
“The ecological footprint of our global food systems is pretty significant. To wit, 80 percent of the consumptive use of fresh water is in the food we eat; about 17 percent of the energy we use is in the food we eat; almost a quarter of the greenhouse gases we produce is the result of the food we eat; and almost 80 percent of the ammonia we produce is the result of the food we consume.
In the current context of knowledge we have, we must reduce this ecological footprint, and NIFA has articulated a stretch goal of reducing the same by 50 percent within the next 20 years. We will need to work really hard to crowd source the best intellectual and monetary resources–from academia, the private sector, the governmental sector, and the nongovernmental sector–if we are to achieve this goal.
Indeed, I like to say that to produce our food, we will need to use less water, land, and energy as well as fewer fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, and we must attempt to decarbonize our food systems to the extent possible.”