Molly Jahn

In the 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln created a Dept. of Agriculture, agricultural research has given the United States a food-and-fiber production system that is second to none. Today, this system produces enough food to feed its citizens while exporting billions of dollars of agricultural products each month—all with a fraction of the rural workforce that led Lincoln to dub the embryonic USDA “the people’s department.”

For most of the past year, I was privileged to help lead the research endeavor at USDA responsible for much of this progress—the research, education, and economics mission area. As Acting Under Secretary, I experienced every day the pride that Americans justifiably feel about their farms, farmers, and forests. And I helped set the vision and strategy for the ways in which continued investment in research will transform world agriculture and food systems.

But I also saw and heard ominous portents about the future of agricultural production. By 2050, it is estimated that global food production must double in order to meet food requirements for a growing population, one that increasingly demands products derived from animal agriculture. These targets are set in an increasingly unpredictable climate while facing greater constraints in energy use. And we will have to do this in a world where protection of the environment has become as important as the supply of food itself.

The enormity of this challenge means two things: We need to invest aggressively in agricultural research, and we can’t afford to continue business as usual in conducting that research.

In the years leading up to World War II, almost 40% of the nation’s entire civilian R&D budget went to agricultural research. Fast forward 70 years and agricultural science is one of the smallest research portfolios in the federal government. And, it has received virtually flat funding for most of the past decade. The USDA’s flagship competitive research program, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), has a budget roughly the size of the National Institute of Health’s last budget increase.

What funding we do have will have to be spent better, leveraging investments with partners toward addressing grand challenges in nutrition, food safety, climate change, bioenergy, and food security. We’ll need to work smarter, assembling the best teams across regions and institutions. And we’ll need to ensure that the research we conduct is tied to measurable goals that matter to the American people.

We also must become accountable for the foreseeable future consequences, broadly framed, of any innovation or activity we pursue. This is my own definition of sustainability, which I believe will be the organizing principle that allows us to re-imagine and revitalize agriculture in the U.S. and in the world.

Some consequences of this view are obvious, such as capturing some of the 50% of American food production that goes to waste. Other consequences of this view are likely still out of reach even for our imaginations.

We know that we cannot have economic sustainability without environmental sustainability. We cannot ensure that our farm and rural communities thrive while inner-city hunger and food deserts persist. And it is unacceptable that the youngest American generation now faces a shorter life expectancy than their parents as a consequence of diet-related health issues.

In March, I convened a small workshop of experts from universities, government, and the private sector to discuss the opportunities and challenges in providing data to support the decisions our society will face in the years ahead. The conclusions of the workshop were that sustainability data are extraordinarily heterogeneous, involving research and information from multiple disciplines (e.g., agriculture, environment, energy, economics, social sciences, etc.) collected by diverse methodologies (both quantitative and qualitative) at various levels, from local to global. We lack a common vocabulary and framework for collecting, assessing, and sharing the resulting knowledge.

Fortunately, we have within USDA a resource that is ideally suited to solve this problem. The National Agricultural Library (NAL) has the modern informatics capabilities, the vocabulary, and the partnerships necessary to build and manage a comprehensive sustainability framework collaboratively with other major federal agencies that have invested in this area. With NAL’s leadership, and the emerging partnerships across federal departments focused on health, environment, and food security around the world, I am optimistic that we at USDA will be able to provide better leadership to a new paradigm of outcome-oriented, data-driven progress toward highly productive and sustainable supply chains—a step toward averting the pending crisis in meeting the world’s food needs.

by Molly Jahn ([email protected]) is Dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s College of Agricultural & Life Sciences. From 2009–2010, she was Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In This Article

  1. Food Policy