USDA director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture sets a plate for the future
CLEMSON — Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, delivered a taste of what is to come when he gave a seminar at Clemson University June 10.
Ramaswamy presented “Setting the table for a hotter, flatter, and more crowded world,” a talk on the role food and agriculture will play in our future. He focused on both the promise and the problems faced by agriculture in the U.S. and globally.
“We need to do the right thing now by turning discoveries into solutions,” he said.
He referred to how the research conducted at land-grant universities 30-40 years ago, and supported with funding from the predecessor agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is benefiting agriculture today with increased yields. Bringing the same innovation today to solving what he refers to as “wicked problems,” is the promise that he spoke of as “The Path Forward.”
“We are a part of the problem and we need to be a part of the solution,” Ramaswamy said.
Population growth is the mother of all these ‘”wicked problems,” he said, followed by food supply, water supply, climate change, energy, health and poverty.
To meet the expected global population growth of 9.6 billion by 2050, yields need to increase from a recent 1.5 percent to 2 percent per year, and food loss and waste need to be reduced significantly, he said.
“In developing countries almost one-half of food is lost on the farm before it reaches the market. In the U.S. and other developed countries, one-third to one-half of all food produced is wasted after it leaves the table.
“We need more crop per drop to reduce water stress in urban areas and food production areas,” he said, adding that 80 percent of all water use goes to food production.
“Agriculture faces the future with many natural resource and biotic constraints, but I am an optimist,” he said.
The Path Forward requires effective governance and both technological and behavioral changes, including more sustainable farming practices and changing patterns of food consumption. Regulations must take a common-sense approach to agricultural issues including labor.
Ramaswamy described the 21st century farm in the U.S. as an example of how sustainable farming practices can be applied to reduce use of pesticides, water and fertilizers and increase yields. Sensors can be placed in the soil, in plants, in the barns and on tractors to send signals to smart phones that tell the farmer what plants and soils need and exactly where and when they need it.
With spot spraying there is no need to spray an entire field if a prescriptive farming analysis targets a five square-meter area. Farmers are becoming “data managers” from the growing of their crops to marketing, he said.
Agriculture needs to involve the social sciences to educate the public on how food is grown, food safety and other agricultural issues.
In conclusion, Ramaswamy quoted President Obama from a 2012 speech: “Reducing hunger and malnutrition leads to advances in peace and security.”
“The clock is ticking,” said Ramaswamy.