USDA Official: Land-Grant Universities Key to Meeting Global Challenges

2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

PRINCESS ANNE, Md. — Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, opened a session with faculty, students and campus visitors at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore Jan. 30 with a question: “What’s the biggest problem humanity faces?”

“Food supply, food safety, energy, water” were among the first topics proposed. Then someone said, “Population.” That, Ramaswamy said, borrowing a term from Horace Rittle, is the “mother of all wicked problems.’ “

In addition to there being entirely too many humans on earth, it’s mankind that prevents development and deployment of technology to solve the problems that result from overpopulation, he said.

Ramaswamy’s talk addressed the role of NIFA and land-grant universities in tackling global challenges.

China is the only country in the world that has been able to slow population grown, but even the Chinese are rethinking that as they discover the problems associated with an aging population. Japanese and Korean residents are the fastest aging populations in the world, followed by Russia. But the Chinese are catching up.

Ramaswamy cited Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, who said that in order to sustain the population we would need two more Earths. If all the world’s inhabitants are to live like Americans, we will need four more Earths, Ramaswamy said.

“One out of six people will go to bed hungry tonight, and 1.5 billion will pop pills for diabetes and high blood pressure that result from too much food or the wrong kind of food,” he said. “Type 2 diabetes is becoming a problem around the world because of the type and quantity of food being consumed as income increases and diets change.”

Apparently, high-fat, American-style fast food is popular everywhere.

Ramaswamy said disease prevention requires an investment in child development, and he illustrated how the way we do that is changing.

The traditional approach was to look for transformational discoveries that would save the world — a magic button, if you will. But none of these will be very effective if we don’t take the human dimension into account, he said.

“As a result, there has been a quantum change in how we look at that,” Ramaswamy said.

Funding is now being channeled into finding ways to measure the results with experiments by working cooperatively with counterparts at the National Institutes of Health.

His colleague at NIH, Frances Collins, agrees that 75 percent of health care costs are due to chronic diseases rooted in food, behavior and lifestyle choices. Ramaswamy said the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and NIH are creating a partnership to enable health and agriculture to work together. Family Nutrition Education Programs are studying this issue to see which programs have made a difference.

How NIFA Can Help

Land grant institutions such as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) were signed into law by Abraham Lincoln for the purpose of democratizing education, working on societal problems and delivering new technology and solutions, primarily to food producers.

NIFA manages $1.3 billion appropriated by Congress and generates $2.3 billion from other government agencies, which it channels into entities like UMES. These include $750 million in what Ramaswamy termed “formula funds,” which are a function of a state’s total population, the percentage of that population that comes from rural areas and the number of farms in the state.

Of these, the USDA has recently funneled $3 million to UMES, much of it through the Cooperative Extension Service. There is also roughly $550 million in competitive funding for special projects.

“UMES has secured a number of these grants,” Ramaswamy said.

There are $100 million in challenge grants available for research to make discoveries in societal challenges, as well as $85 million in funding for fundamental knowledge research. Some of the projects these monies have funded include research on biomass development and aid to beginning farmers and ranchers. USDA programs have helped to bring in 40 million new farmers and ranchers through the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

A favorite source of funding, at least to Ramaswamy, is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) fellowships for pre- and post-doctoral students and the internship programs that can lead to jobs after graduation.

“USDA internships are a good way to launch a career in agriculture,” he said.

He also urged students to develop what he termed “soft” or “noncognitive” skills, such as critical thinking and communications. “These are skills that are critical to add to your degree.”

Most educators are familiar with STEM programs for science, technology, engineering and mathematical studies. Ramaswamy is promoting a SAFE program of study, which stands for science, agriculture, food and environment.

The future of the planet’s inhabitants depend on it, he said.

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