NIFA director reflects on UD visit, nutritional security challenges

NIFA director reflects on UD visit, nutritional security challengesSonny Ramaswamy, the director of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), recently visited the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to tour the facilities, offer a roundtable discussion on NIFA opportunities and give a seminar titled “Perfect Storm to Nutritional Security.”

Ramaswamy took time to discuss his visit, the importance of nutritional security and the value of innovations by land grand universities.

Q. What were your impressions of the University of Delaware and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources?

Ramaswamy: What struck me is that the University of Delaware is one of these institutions that really does get its work done. As a land-grant university, your natural resources are critically important for you and I was blown away by the work that you do.

I talked to your stakeholders, including Ed Kee, the state secretary of agriculture, and they all are really appreciative of the kind of work that you do. Your plant sciences group, your poultry group, some of the innovative work that’s going on – for example the work that’s going on with regards to chickens and the adaptation to higher temperatures and climate change based on the genetics of chickens from Africa. These are the kinds of things that are truly outstanding work that’s going to be of relevance to everybody, not just the state of Delaware. I think you all can play a significantly bigger role not just for the state of Delaware but also to set the national agenda.

Q. Was there a particular highlight of your visit?

Ramaswamy: The conversations that I had with folks. I interacted with two of your Ag Ambassadors and they were really sharp. It was excellent to talk to them and find out about why they went to the University of Delaware, the education that’s being offered — those are the kinds of things that stick out and some of the work that I referred too. I’d stack it up against the best anywhere.

Q. Could you talk about the presentation you gave at UD on “The Perfect Storm to Nutritional Security?”

Ramaswamy: We have an existential threat and this existential threat is nutritional security. A few years ago, I quit using the term “food security,” in part because it’s not just food. It really is nutrition we have to be mindful of and if we don’t think of it from a nutritional perspective, from a health outcomes perspective, we will continue to exacerbate this situation that we’ve got.

We frame our conversations around the year 2050, that something bad is going to happen with this nine-plus billion people, and that in the next 35-50 years we’re going to have to produce as much food as we’ve done in the last 10,000 years. But it’s not only about food, it’s about nutritional outcomes.

The obesity epidemic that we’ve got in America and even globally, we’ve got a yin and yang situation. Globally, we’ve got about 1.3 billion people that before going to bed, they have to take Lipitor for cholesterol, baby aspirin for heart disease, medication for hypertension, medication for Type 2 diabetes and things like that. This is because of the excessive amounts of calories and poor quality calories as well. As a consequence of that, globally, we’ll have about 50,000 people that will drop dead today. Here in America, it’s one out of five people that have to take those medications to have a reasonable living.

On the flip side, globally we’ve got about 850 million people that are going to bed hungry tonight for lack of food and every four seconds, a man, woman or child is going to drop dead. So you’ve got people dying because they don’t have any food and you’ve got people dying because they have too much food.

In America, we’ve got 17 million households that are nutritionally insecure. On the other side of my building is the section of Washington, D.C., called Anacostia and it’s predominantly African American and very poor and there are food deserts out there. What happens is, folks are going to go to a local convenience store and getting a lot of cheap calories. We’ve also got people that have got no food in rural communities, even in the state of Delaware.

Ursula Bauer, who is with the Center for Disease Control, did a study that said basically 75 percent of our nation’s health care costs are attributable to chronic disease. This is the result of genetics, excessive calories and quality of those calories, sedentary life styles, and behaviors.  Chronic diseases include Type 2 diabetes, metabolic disorders, and things like that. A number of cancers are the result of excessive amounts of calories, excess glucose in our diets. There’s tantalizing connections between excessive amounts of glucose that gets deposited in the brain that’s contributing to plaques, that’s contributing to Alzheimer’s disease. Many, if not all, of these are manageable by just being more mindful of the quality and quantity of food, along with a reasonable effort to avoid sedentary lifestyles, smoking, and other behaviors that contribute to negative health outcomes.

Q. How does this factor in with the perfect storm?

Ramaswamy: The perfect storm is everything from climate change to diminishing land and water resources, the competition between people wanting to build cities and towns and needing water for people living in cities and towns, and competition without food production enterprises, all of which compete with our ability to achieve nutritional security.

Q. How do we get from where we are to where we need to be?

Ramaswamy: I’m super optimistic and I know we’re going to get it done. At my talk, I showed since the invention of agriculture, all these innovations have come along whether it’s the use of biological control or the use of manure as fertilizer or the development of synthetic fertilizers to the genetics and genomics revolution to precision agriculture, tractors, combines, and robotics.

Then I showed a line graph of teosinte — the ancestor of modern corn — that was just about as big as the American quarter. Then, humans got involved when they figured out how to take teosinte and convert it to corn that we could eat. Then the scientific enterprise, hybridization of corn and all that happened and it shoots up to where the corn is about 12 inches long and big and that quarter looks like a puny little thing.

That’s what we’ve been able to do. Unbelievable creativity and innovations that have been brought to bear by institutions like the University of Delaware and the University of Maryland and Purdue University, and the many other academic, government, and private sector scientists and educators, including our extension personnel. So we know we can do it. Human ingenuity is critically important for this and now we’ve got to step it up.

We need the 21st century Extension of translating knowledge and delivering it to the end users. We need the education of young people, not just to become scientists but to go and actually grow the crops and raise the livestock as well.

All of the greatest discoveries and innovations, that knowledge you’re generating with regard to African chickens, means nothing at all if you don’t have people actually growing those chickens and making them available to our dinner tables. What’s incumbent on the University of Delaware is to make sure that those livestock producers are supported.

We can address this nutritional security. It’s not just for America but America has shown that we can feed the world. I’m the beneficiary of America’s investments in me when I was growing up in India at a time when India couldn’t feed itself. My mom raised us as a single parent, four brothers, standing in line for rations, and America was very much a part of our ability to eat back in the 1960s. The education I got was at an institution that was built by American land-grants.

So America can do it. We’ve done it and land-grant universities are an amazing part of it. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, he said these land-grants are going to be the economic engine of our nation and sure enough, these land-grants have been the economic engines. We can put a man on the moon, we can fly airplanes, we invented the internet. What other country can lay claim to that sort of capability? It’s because really, truly, these land-grant universities and these incredible American farmers that the land-grants support allowed us to do that.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Wenbo Fan

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.