Last March, President Obama appointed Sonny Ramaswamy as director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Ramaswamy, an entomologist, grew up in India at a time when food was scarce.
However, he also experienced firsthand how research - especially agricultural research - can transform a country for the better. Throughout his career, Ramaswamy served in administrative, educational and research capacities at multiple land-grant universities across the country. Prior to joining NIFA, Ramaswamy was dean at Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Ramaswamy recently discussed his vision for NIFA's current research endeavors.
Regarding how his previous experiences will influence his new role as director of NIFA Ramaswamy says: "I had the privilege of coming to the U.S. and have been educated because of American taxpayer investments. America provided food aid to India. I also met Norm Borlaug, "the father of the Green Revolution," when I was an undergraduate student in the early 1970s in India. All of this had a huge influence on me."
He adds, "I've been at multiple land-grant universities, beginning in India. I have a very broad perspective that few others have because they tend to stay at one institution and they have a much more narrow focus. In some ways, my experiences contribute to my thinking about the challenges that we face as humanity a little bit differently."
As examples, he views NIFA not just about food and agriculture, it's also about jobs and the economy. It's about agricultural competitiveness. It's about farmers and ranchers and putting a few more dollars in their pockets. "This is the perspective that I bring to the table," he states.
In explaining NIFA's role, he says, "NIFA's bottom-line mission is to invest monetary resources to enable research that advances our food and agricultural enterprise. That's a very broad enterprise and within that enterprise is animal agriculture."
Ramaswamy explains that NIFA's research priorities are organized around five themes from nutrition and childhood obesity to food safety to climate change to food security to sustainable bioenergy. Within each theme, there are a slew of sub-priorities, whether it's animal production, plant production, dealing with insects and pathogens or dealing with the specifics of food safety or youth and family issues.
A concern that Ramaswamy expresses is the state of funding for research in agriculture today. He says, "It's not commensurate with the needs. We're reaping the benefits of investments that America made in the 1950s. Now, we need to make investments for the next 40 years, when the earth's population is predicted to reach about 9.5 billion people."
Putting that into context, he questions: What should we be doing now? How are we going to raise our cows? Are there different ways of doing it? Are there better ways of improving nutrient management? Are there better ways of utilizing water?
He continues, "Things are going a-begging. The part of the American economy that agriculture is part of, what it contributes to, the enormity of the challenges and the investments we make as a nation, is unfortunately not commensurate. Add to that the situation at the state level and you end up with a double whammy - because many states are having a lot of difficulty with the economic situation.
To improve the support for funding for new research initiatives, Ramaswamy advises "Speaking with one voice."
He adds, "We need to be thinking about how research enables America to be several steps ahead of the competition. If we can all speak with one voice, whether it's going to Congress or to the local state legislatures and bringing in private enterprise, as a new compact, I think we are going to make a lot of headway.
"This is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue - it is an American issue. We are global leaders when it comes to food. However, if we're interested in ensuring America's competitiveness on a global scene, we're going to have to think of how to make the investments necessary to keep us ahead of the game."
He also emphasizes that every dollar invested in agricultural research returns $20 to $30. "There is no other enterprise where you have that sort of a return on investment," he states.
Among his own priorities, Ramaswamy says, "The number one thing that I would like to accomplish is for food and agriculture to be recognized as an important part of our nation's enterprise. If I can get that done in six years, I'd be very happy. Obviously, I want to go around and use it as a bully pulpit ... and be unapologetic, excited and passionate about it."
He adds, "The second thing that I want to do is really convince people and Congress that, at the end of the day, we are responding to you. We listen - and my agency is not doing things unilaterally. Everything that we do is all stakeholder-driven. There are no unilateral decisions made by me. And getting the commensurate resources, as well, would be the three things that I would like to accomplish in the next six years."