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USDA NIFA Chief sets the table for a hotter, flatter, more crowded planet

4 months ago from DTN AgDay

Some problems revolve around trying to cope with the world's increasing population

Some of agriculture's most "wicked problems" revolve around trying to cope with the challenges of the world's increasing population, USDA's chief scientist told seed scientists last week in Chicago.

Sonny Ramaswamy, administrator for USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, told members of the American Seed Trade Association he is setting the table for a hotter, flatter, more crowded Earth. Science must consider the premise of 9 billion people living with diminishing water resources, changing climate and health difficulties stemming from older demographics.

"The reason I use wicked problems is because we might have the most fantastic knowledge and technologies available, but we're not able to deploy them to address these challenges because humans become involved in the conversation and we're not able to agree on what sort of technologies to deploy and how to use them," he said.

Even if people are divided on how to cope with these issues, agriculture will still be expected to put food on the table for everyone. That demands more emphasis on agricultural competitiveness, farming's ecological footprint and further growing the bioeconomy.

Generally, most research dollars come from discretionary funds. USDA's fiscal year 2013 budget had $2.5 billion in discretionary spending for research programs. The Senate version of the farm bill would set $892 million in mandatory spending over the next decade, while the House bill would include $871 million in mandatory funding.

"We have provided funding, for example, not just looking how do you develop wheats, or corn or cattle to deal with climate change, but also what is climate change going to do to the occurrence of foot-and-mouth disease, the occurrence of shiga toxin-producing E. coli? What is the role of climate change on food safety?"

Congress created NIFA in the 2008 farm bill with a mandate to help consolidate major scientific grants to land-grant universities and other groups while also avoiding some redundancy. NIFA's mandatory and discretionary budget was $1.24 billion in fiscal year 2013 and $1.35 billion in 2014. NIFA's grants cover a broad array of topics, ranging from plant breeding and genetic tools to food safety, food security and adapting agriculture to climate change. Much of the emphasis is on building fundamental knowledge.

"We get our marching orders from multiple different areas," Ramaswamy said. "They all need to be dealt with."

Ramaswamy praised research presented at the ASTA meeting to develop hybrid wheat varieties. He also repeatedly mentioned his concern about UG99 wheat stem rust and the prospects of it arriving in North America. Canadian officials last month expressed similar concerns about the rust disease in announcing grant money to find ways to protect crops there.

"If we're not able to address that, it could be the next potato famine," Ramaswamy said of wheat rust.

He later added, "We have an onslaught of these things coming in one behind the other and we are seeing these pathogens and insects that we have never ever seen before," Ramaswamy said. "We have to wake up and smell the coffee, as they say. People who are involved in it are paying attention to it.

Extreme weather events have demonstrated the potential to significantly drag down crop yields. A draft report released by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that median yields for major crops will decline globally by as much as 2% per decade throughout the rest of the century. These yield declines will happen as demand grows by an average of 14% per decade until 2050. The biggest production problem will be yield variability from year-to-year.

"I don't have the wherewithal to give you money to study why climate change is happening, how it is happening, the science of it, but I can certainly give you money to figure out how to adapt to it, how to mitigate it and the impacts on production. So I have a clearly defined role I have to play because the money is pretty tight."

Ramaswamy said the need to meet that adapting-to-climate-change research demand forces him to avoid the arguments about what is causing climate change.

"I don't quibble whether I can convince somebody, 'You better believe in this.' I would much rather go ahead and point out that there is this potential problem. Why don't we go ahead and get ready now? Why don't we develop the wheat that we need?" he said.

Ramaswamy said one of the keys to America's successful agricultural system has been the university extension system. However, the country's extension system in recent years has been hit both by state budget cuts and retirement. Federal research plays a critical role in educating the next generation of extension agents and other agriculturalists, whether those are farmers, scientists, crop advisers or government employees.

"We have seen a very significant decrease in the number of extension boots on the ground in this country," he said. "So somebody needs to be available to go ahead and take these innovations, translate them and deliver them to the end users -- the farmers, the livestock producers and others."

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