Interview with Sonny Ramaswamy, Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Interview with Sonny Ramaswamy, Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture


Today is
September 14, 2016. I am interviewing Dr.
Sonny Ramaswamy who is the Director of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National
Institute of Food and Agriculture or NIFA. I am Susan Fugate, head of
Special Collections at the USDA’s National
Agricultural Library. This month I will
celebrate 40 years with USDA. We are in USDA’s Creative
Media and Broadcast Studio in Washington D.C. As I said today I’m interviewing
Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy. He was appointed to serve
as Director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food
and Agriculture on May 7, 2012. NIFA’s mission very
basically is to invest in and advance agricultural
research, education and extension. Prior to Joining NIFA,
Dr. Ramaswamy served in several academic position. So to begin if you would
share with us some biographical information
and go as early as you’d like in your life. Okay, yes so, thanks so
much for having me here this afternoon and
appreciate the work that you folks are doing in the
National Agricultural Library and it’s a
tremendously important repository of knowledge
for all of us, for our nation, for that
matter the world so I appreciate you taking the
time to do this as well. So in regards to my own
background as you probably can tell I was born and
raised in India and had the, I was born
into a single pa, well I was born in India,
in southern India in Bangalore and I was raised
by a single parent, by my mother. My dad dies when I was
a 10 year old and so my mother, my dad was a high
school graduate and my mom had an 8th grade education
and my dad died when I was 10 years old. He died saving another man
and so my mom with her 8th grade education had to
raise us and she held multiple jobs and we
were pretty poor but she insisted that education
was very important so she ended up sending us to a
Jesuit school and we got a tremendous education at
the school that we went to, my brothers and I. We’re four brothers by
the way and I think that education was critically
important and it was a time in India
in the 1960s, 50s and 60s but my dad
had died in 62 when India really could not feed
itself and so America had a very strong and
important influence on India itself and its
ability to feed itself. And America was involved
in not only giving food aid but also because
the food minister, that would be like the
Secretary of Agriculture, had met with John Foster
Dulles and asked Dulles as the Secretary of State
that time in the 1950s to help, for America to help
India to become self sufficient in
its food needs. And allegedly the food
minister used the biblical passage of, you know,
giving a man food, a fish versus teaching him
how to fish and Dulles was inspired by it. Dulles himself is, was
religious and he was inspired by it and he
contacted, he asked, he called upon the American
Land Grant Universities like Michigan
State University, Kansas State University
and others across America to go to India to help
build these Land Grant Colleges in India. They were built and I got
an education at one of those institutions. The second thing that
happened was talking about food aid itself and India
got a lot of food aid and being a relatively poor
family and in India at that time you had to have
a ration card to get rations, monthly rations
of X number of pounds of rice and wheat and sugar
and things like that and occasionally America would
send care packages in clubs of additional wheat
or flour or sugar or powdered milk or whatever
and my grandmother somehow, she used
to live with us, somehow would hear about
the fact that America was sending this powered milk
and she would tell me to go stand in line as a 10,
11 year old to stand in line to get this
additional amount of whatever it was. And when we got the sugar
and the powered milk and things like that she would
make all these deserts for us as well. But what really struck me
at that time and I still remember it, it’s
seared in my brain, is these burlap sacks with
the handshake and the stars and stripes shield
on it and it’s seared in my brain. So America fed me and I
got educated at those Land Grant Colleges where by
the way the institution that I went to in
Bangalore was adopted by and really helped
establish by the University of Tennessee
and I got my education there. The third thing that
happened that’s also had a huge influence on me and
who I am now is that when Norman Borlaug, you
know some of you are, you I’m sure know of
Norman Borlaug who is considered to be the
Father of the Green Revolution and considered
to have fed a billion people including
yours truly, he had figured out how to
dwarf wheat which has been the bane of farming. You know crops
grow really tall, they’re heavy with grain
and you get the wind blowing and they lodge. And so he
figured that out. That knowledge was
transferred into Indian varieties into wheat and
rice and like they say the rest is history. And I got to meet him
personally when he came to Bangalore to the
institution that I went to, the University of
Agricultural Sciences and I thought he was just
another one of these old white guys running around. There’s a whole bunch of
old white guys running around in India at that
time and didn’t know who he was and then low and
behold the following year in 1971 he got the
Nobel Peace Prize. I read about it in the
paper and so those three influences have been
tremendous in my own development, in
my own thinking, how I deploy my
thinking to what I do. So I went on to get my
Undergraduate Degree in Agriculture and, in
Bangalore and I got my Master’s Degree in
Entomology and then I had the privilege of having an
American professor from Rutgers come on a
sabbatical to India and I worked with him and he
offered me an opportunity to come to America and I
came to the states in 1976 and got my PhD and I
worked on cockroaches, on the sexual behavior of
cockroaches and in fact I’m one of the world’s
experts on the sexual behavior of insects. And so I thought I would
end up going back to India or get into the
international development arena or some such thing
but I got talked into staying put and I went on
from Rutgers after my PhD to get a post doc in
Michigan at Michigan State University. Then I went to, talked
into moving to Mississippi State University as
a professor where I developed my academic
career over the next 15 years. I got promoted
and tenured, became a full professor. Again I continued to work
on the sexual behavior or the signals
between insects, the males and females of
various pests particularly the ones that are pests of
cotton and corn and other crops important to the
United States particularly the southern
United States. And then I got talked into
throwing my hat in the ring and being, getting
offered the position to become the head of the
Entomology Department at Kansas State University. I was there for
several years, then I got talked into
moving to Perdue, another great Land Grant
University to manage their Agricultural Research
Programs and I was having a tremendous time there
and a headhunter contacted me and talked me into
moving to Oregon State University where I was the
Dean of the college and again, along the way I
kept my research going, I love to teach and did
extension work as well. And in Oregon
I was actually, you know deans in America
have to raise a lot of money and, for
scholarships and things like that. I’m sure you know, your
alma mater has contacted you Susan as well to give
money and so I’m one of those deans that
used to do that. I’m pretty good at asking
for and getting money. And I was driving up
from Corvallis, Oregon to Portland, Oregon to the
airport to fly out to the Midwest to go around the
Midwest to ask for money and the phone on, my
iPhone rings and it’s on my car speaker and I say
hello this is Sonny and a female voice on the
other end says, is this Dr. Ramaswamy? And I was a little leary
because people know me call me Sonny. Nobody calls me Ramaswamy. And so I thought somebody
that I don’t know and I was a little leary. The voice I didn’t
recognize and then it’s a female voice, introduces
herself and then introduces this other
person which is Cathy Woteki and so then they
say do you have some time now and I said yes, I do. And they said they’re from
the White House and I look at my, Brian
Todd, pardon me, Todd Bastion who worked
with me in my fundraising efforts and things like
that and I looked at him and I said, I mouthed
you’ve got to be kidding me and so, and then the,
you know they said are you sitting down? So do you have some time? I said yes I’m driving
then they said are you sitting down? I chuckled and I said in
a manner of speaking I’m sitting down and they
chuckled as well and then they said that the President
would like to appoint you to this position. And you know my knees
started shaking and I said, you know, I’m going
to have to pull over now and I did. And so like they say the
rest is history and so I was appointed and, you
know for a poor kid growing up in India to be
asked by the President of the United States,
anybody in America if the President calls you and inquires you say yes, sign me up. And for a young person
growing up in India under the circumstances that I
did that America had this incredible impact on me,
the American taxpayer and here was the opportunity
for me to work to in quotes “give back” and or
“give forward” as it were and it was a no-brainer
for me to say yes. Of course I call my wife
and daughter and my son-in-law and we were all
excited and it took many, many months to go through
the vetting process in part because I was born
and raised in a different country and lived in many
parts of America as well. So here I am. It’s been about four and a
half years since I came on board and only in America
something like this could happen. Well, it’s a wonderful
story and I do have in my notes that I was going to
be sure that we at least got to hear that story which
is a real life changer for you. Uh huh, Indeed. One of the things you’re
well known for is how you speak passionately about
the need for better communication in science. Can you talk about
communication in science and you were approached
for improving understanding between
scientists and the public and also between
scientists? Yes, I think this whole
idea about communication, you know, we all focus on
oh my gosh we need all these, you know, gizmos
and doodads and these discoveries that we
make, need to make, these inventions that we
need to make and things like that. Yes, certainly we need to
do all of that but all those inventions and
discoveries and gizmos and doodads and GMOs and
everything else means nothing at all if we don’t
bring the public along as well. And we’ve been remiss in
not engaging with the public. Not only not engaging with
the public and also when we do engage with the
public we come across with a condescending style that
is here I am the expert, I’m a PhD. What do you know
John Q Public? And listen to me I’m going
to tell you how this is all about, you know,
supposed to work and things like that. So there’s sort of
a condescension, a patronizing approach that
we’ve used and for the most part we’ve not
communicated as scientists for the most part. You know, look at the
conversations we’re having in this country whether
it’s about climate change or about genetically
modified crops or about whatever the
topic de jour, about water, about obesity,
about organics, about sustainable food systems or
whatever it is and I think we have to necessarily
take the time to engage with the public and the
word communication itself to me implies a one way,
you know, I’m the expert, I’m going to tell you what
to do and that’s why I like to use the
word “engagement”. I want to engage with you,
with the public and find out what it is that
we should be doing. And I think the
hallmark of extension, Cooperative Extension
Service that we know which NIFA supports which is
undertaken by the Land Grant Universities
across America is, it’s a participatory
approach. That is, I’m am going to
come and find out first of all what it is
that you need. I’m going to undertake
that effort and then make the discoveries
and all that, translate it and then
provide that back to you and then iteratively
get to a better spot. And in fact if you look
at our tag line for the National Institute of Food
and Agriculture that we crafted here in the last
few years is, “user informed science that
transforms lives”. It is at the day, at the
end of the day it is about transforming lives but
the transforming of those lives needs to happen with
knowledge from those lives as to what it is that we
ought to be undertaking as well. And so to tell the
story, to engage, to demonstrate
the creativity, the excitement that goes
into this incredible enterprise of food
and agriculture. I mean food is truly
essential for our very existence as humanity. It’s fundamental to us and
the weird thing is that people, they don’t want
technology in the food because it’s very,
very personal. They want
technology in this, they want the latest,
greatest smartphones and things like that but
not in their food. They don’t want you to be
messing around with their food but the technologies
that we’ve got in our food are really the
technologies that humans have incorporated into our
food systems ever since we started eating
as humanity, ever since we
invented agriculture. What these new
technologies allow us to do, these new techniques
allow us to do is to hasten that process rather
than taking 10, 15, 20 years to develop
new varieties, to develop new breeds of
animals and things like that, it hastens the
process so then we can do it in six months, okay? But we’ve got to engage
with the public to demonstrate why it
is that we do this. How do we do
it, show them, become totally transparent
as well and we have failed to do it. The weird thing is the
same individual that does not want technology in
their food but wants the latest, greatest iPhone
also want technology if they have cancer or some
disease of that nature. In fact, much of the
latest drugs we use are what we refer
to as biologics. These are derived from
genetically modified cells and organisms. The insulin people take
for diabetes is a result of genetic
modification, okay? The drugs we use today,
these modern drugs that cost 10, 15, 20,000
dollars per treatment that we’ve all heard about on
television and on the news and things like that,
those drugs are also derived through
biotechnology, okay? So people want technology
for something that’s going to affect them,
i.e., their health. They want technology for
the gizmos they want to use like televisions and
smartphones and all that but they don’t want
technology in their food. But we’ve always
used technology. Humanity has done that,
figuring out how to deal with droughts, figuring
out how to deal with the lack of water and
on and on and on, incorporating the traits
that we need, you know, the taste that we need
has all been done by selection. It is technology. It is knowledge being
applied and biotechnology is really the application
of knowledge and so in engaging with the
public and helping them understand why these
things are done, how we do it and in an
open and transparent manner not just throw
data at them, you know, and avoid coming across
as condescending and patronizing would go a
long ways and so we have to collectively do a
better job of helping our staff, our colleagues
develop the ability to engage with the
media and the public. And so we, you know, in my
former life and now in NIFA, we’re bringing in
experts to help my staff, my scientific staff know
how to engage with the public because we are a
public facing organization and we need to know how to
do that as scientists and as people that are here to
support the development of knowledge that will
allow us to address this existential threat that
we’ve got of nutritional security. Great, can you talk now,
a little change of gears, about your philosophy and
approach to leadership particularly in
the public sector? Yes, you know, leadership
again, you know, there’s the old adage
about the definition of pornography, leadership
is just like that, you know it when you
see it and it’s a, to use a French term it’s
sort of a “je ne sais quoi” and you can’t
really nail it down. You can use all these
different characteristics to describe what
leadership is all about and what I’d like to say
is we’ve got to help, again, just like in the
communications world, we’ve got to help inculcate
leadership as well. Back in the good old days,
we’re talking about 154 years ago, back in 1862
when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was
established and the Morrill Act was passed that
created the Land Grant Universities, the Morrill
Act said three things need to happen. One is foundational
knowledge in math and science and humanities and
reading and writing and things like that, that
everybody must have. Secondly on, built on
top of it is practical knowledge in the
agricultural and mechanic arts and then last but
not least is military leadership. Not so much learning how
to shoot guns as much as inculcating
leadership skills. That is the
communication skills, the problem
solving skills, the critical
thinking skills, working in a team
environment, working in, taking knowledge gained
here and applying it in a different context and
things of that nature that’s what leadership
is all about. And today we refer to
this as the non-cognitive skills and in fact there’s
a body of literature about this as well. We had that, that was
a requirement in the education that we offered
in these Land Grant Universities but over the
years we eliminated it along with a whole bunch
of other things because of budget cuts and things
like that and now we’ve come full circle to where
we’re resurrecting the inculcation of leadership
skills as well. So my own leadership
style is very much of incorporating the
cognitive skills and the, pardon me, the non-cognitive
skills along with the cognitive skills,
the technical knowledge that I have got at well
but really it is this non-cognitive skills, the
people skills that we talk about. My style is I, you know,
my role is to be a facilitator, an enabler of
great things that others need to be doing and I’m
not the kind of person that goes down and says
you will do this and such. My style is one of helping
people look for outcomes. I’m very outcomes driven,
I’m in your face and I’m willing to question my own
assumptions and others assumptions. I never ask anybody to
do anything that I don’t myself do so I model
myself as well in the style that I have and so
those are the approaches that I’m doing in my own
leadership as well and then you live vicariously
through the efforts of others as a leader. And so you don’t do these
things because you’re going to gain a halo
around your head or some sort of a recognition
or whatever. You live again through the
efforts of the others that are undertaken the
incredible enterprise that they’re involved in as
well helping them get to a better spot and then
that’s what to me is what leadership is all about
and then going back to this educational training
that we offer as a result of the Morrill Act itself
that inculcation is critically important. Again for a long period of
time we had given up on it and now in our grants that
we offer by the way we have, if you’ve got
students that are going to be educated as part of the
grants that we provide you those young people
must get one, the technical knowledge,
the cognitive skills but you have to
demonstratively show us that you’re going to
also inculcate these non-cognitive leadership
skill as well, measurable non-cognitive
leadership skills as well. So what we want to do is
to resurrect what America is all about is it
is about leadership. I mean if you look at our
global preeminence that’s what it’s about. It’s not that we’re
damn good technicians. You know the Chinese can
do all of these things better than anybody can or
the Indians or whomever but what keeps America
ahead of the game is the ability to
question yourself, the ability to
question authority, the ability to go and
apply the knowledge and the critical thinking and
problem solving skills and things of that nature. Great, can you talk
about some of the major accomplishments in, during
your tenure as head of NIFA? Yes, it’s kind
of, you know, it’s kind of weird to say
that there is some major accomplishments
during my tenure. Science is built on the
efforts of others from way back when so you can’t
really say that there was a sort of a
start and stop. That something started on
May 7, 2012 the day I got sworn in by Secretary
Vilsack and then some great things
have happened. So the great things that
have happened is the result of many, many years
of investments by NIFA and its predecessors. As you know personally as
well NIFA came from the Cooperative State Research
Extension Education Service, CSREES,
which came from CSRS, Cooperative State Research
Service and Extension Service which were merged
back in the 1990s and prior to that. So we go back, my agency
goes back to the very inception of USDA and the
creation of the Land Grant Colleges at that time by
the passage of the Morrill Act and that being signed
into law by Abraham Lincoln, President Lincoln
and so there’s been an agency throughout that
period of time for 152, 154 years that has been
around to protect the interests of the
federal government. And so I’ll give you a
couple of examples having said that knowing full
well it’s built on this body of knowledge that
comes along for us. A project that we’ve
funded that’s led by the University of California at
Davis and the University of Minnesota. Multiple universities
involved in it and it’s called the TCAP Project,
it’s call the TRITA, T-R-I-T-I-C-E-A-E CAP, Coordinated Agricultural Project. The work that’s been
done by that team of individuals has resulted
now this year if you look at about 20% of the
wheat acreage in America includes varieties of
wheat developed by that particular project. That constitutes about 3.5
billion dollars that’s added to the pocketbooks
of our farmers, that’s one example. A second example of work
that’s being done and I’m sure you’ve heard
of the Chipotle, the casual fast food
restaurant having the problems with food safety
issues and the cruise ship disease, you know, the
people going on cruise ships, they end up getting
tummy problems and diarrhea and vomiting
and things like that. One of the bugs that
causes that is referred to as norovirus and so we
provided funded again to a team led by North Carolina
State University and again there’s a whole bunch of
partners in it across America have figured out
how to mitigate the impact of norovirus. It’s truly
transformative discoveries that are being made that
now will allow us to say okay, norovirus you’re
done, it’s over, we’re not going to have
to worry about it, okay? Give you a third example. So we support the efforts
at multiple institutions across America, not
just academics but predominantly academics,
Land Grants are a predominant part of it but
non-Land Grants as well but within the Land Grant
community we have multiple institutions now
that we support. We refer them as 1862s. That would be
the Perdues, the Michigan States
and others that were established back in 1862
then what we refer to as 1890s. These are the historically
Black Institutions in America. This would be like Fort
Valley State University, Kentucky State University,
North Carolina A&T University, etcetera,
and there’s 19 of those institutions and then
we have the 1994s. These are Tribal colleges
and universities and we have 36 of those and then
we have a brand new avatar created in 2012. These are the Hispanic
serving agricultural colleges and universities. There’s about
120 odd of those. So there are four such
institutions that we provide funding to. Now going back
to an example, North Carolina A&T
University has done some pretty cool work
that I’m really, really excited about. So as you know in America
I’m sure you’ve heard about this,
peanut allergies. We have about 2% of
America’s population that has peanut allergies. In fact, if you remember
airline companies got rid of peanuts. The one thing that they
used to give us along with food back in the old days. They got rid of their
peanuts and in fact we’ve got labels on our foods
now that says beware this was produced in a facility
where nuts have been processed or whatever
because we have to be very mindful of children having
anaphylactic shock and potentially dying because
of the allergies they have to peanuts and
other nuts as well. So the scientists at North
Carolina A&T University, a historically Black
institution figured out a very simple food enzyme,
so it’s a natural food enzyme that’s found in the
food you and I consume and they treat the peanuts
with that for about, they wash it in there
for a few minutes and it eliminates, that washing
eliminates well over 98% of the allergens that
are in that peanut. Now imagine this
very healthy, full of protein and full
of really good oils can be consumed even by people
that have peanut allergies as well. So those, you know, give
you a sense of the kind of really cool transformative
discoveries. I really like to think
going back to user inspired signs that
transform life. It is about
transforming lives. I can go on and on about
all manner of discoveries and other things as well
but I’m going to stop right there. They are excellent
examples I think that touch the lives of
many as you say. Now I’d like for you to
talk about a challenge that you have faced as
Director of NIFA and talk a little bit about
how you resolved it? Yes, you know my… Or opportunity. Yes, sure, sure,
you know my style, my approach to life again
I think in part I like to say that we’re the
sum total of all our experiences until this
moment, everything that we’ve had, that we’ve been
exposed to and it’s the genetics, it’s
the nurturing, it’s the experiences
that we’ve had. What you see today is that
sum total of it and so because of my upbringing
in a single parent family, being the youngest
kid, being beaten up by my brothers, having to in
quote, “fend for myself”, studying in a Jesuit
school and all of these experiences have allowed
me to develop a pretty thick skin and to
be able to take on. I’m very much in your face,
I deal with it head on. With me, you get
it like it is. I’m very candid, say it
like it is whether it’s the Under Secretary or the
Secretary or the custodial person I’ll say
it like it is. I absolutely do
not mince words. And so you know, actually
the challenges have not been, you know, challenges,
oh my gosh, no this challenge or that
challenge, it’s been working with Congress
for example to get more resources or engaging with
our stakeholder community that would come to me
and complain about a particular issue or
whatever it is or some Land Grant University or
somebody didn’t get their grant or whatever. Those are the things that
I’ve had to deal with and I take it head on and I
understand what the issue is. I convene a group of
individuals to figure it out. I’m, again, very outcomes
driven as I said in my leadership style as well. What’s the outcome
we want to achieve? And there’s got to be a
path to get there, right, whatever that challenge is
that I’ve been exposed, subject to here in the
last four plus years is think of an outcome,
there’s got to be a way to get to that outcome. We all agree, are we all
in agreed that this is the outcome that we
want to get to. There may be challenges on
how are we going to get there, there may be
opportunities on how you get there but you can
figure out a path forward as well. So luckily I haven’t had
very serious issues or challenges. I think for me the biggest
challenge has been how slow things get done in
the federal government. I am by nature very
impatient and I have to bite my tongue and kind of
wait for things to happen. My favorite, well when I
first came on board, my favorite word to use was
“obfuscation” and people would say well this is the
way we’ve done it or keep saying something so you go
away from here and I would not allow that to happen,
absolutely positively not. And so in my own personal
dictionary going back to my leadership style again
I’ve gotten rid of the word “fail” and “no”. I never say no and I’ve
gotten rid of the word “fail” because you just
didn’t try hard enough to figure out a path
forward as well. And so that’s the way I
approach these things. And yeah, there’s
challenges. Challenges are all
depending on your, one’s perspective, right? It’s like beauty is in the
eye of the beholder and what a challenge, what a
challenge is to me may not be to you or to
somebody else, right? So if you approach it
from that perspective and approach it from the
perspective that there is always a path forward that
you can figure out and because you didn’t try
hard enough or you didn’t come up with a creative
way of addressing that particular challenge? You take care of it. So going back to this
whole obfuscation and the slow pace and people in my
agency know I say this all the time it only takes
about four years to get things done in the
federal government. We’ve made a lot of
changes in the agency. We’re very much data
driven and we track everything that we do, the
decisions that we make are based on evidence not some
somebody said so approach and we’ve embarked on
grants modernization for example, we’ve
incorporated Lean Six Sigma, continuous
process improvement. We’ve got Black Belt
that we’ve hired, we’re training our staff
to become Black Belts ultimately, we’ve got a
whole bunch of Green Belts in Six Sigma and again
it’s about processes, it’s about who are we
doing all this for? It’s the taxpayers and it’s
the outcomes we want to achieve as well. So when you approach
these things from that perspective you know
really it’s not a challenge per say. Yes, some of these things
might take a little bit longer because we also had
to reduce our footprint because of the budget cuts we
had when I first came on board. I eliminated 35 positions
is what I did and, I mean, you know, so your
plate is already full. You’ve got more stuff on
that plate now as a staff member over there
at the agency. We cut back on travel and
things like that too. So again with the idea
that we have to do these things before we can get
to a better spot and so we’re at a tremendously
better spot now. Good, that’s good to know. I know that your career
and your public service has touched many more of
the fields of agriculture than entomology but can
you talk about entomology in its present state
and future potential? Yes, so if you think of
nutritional security, food, right, food
as a construct, required for our
very existence, for our very survival,
aside from the fact that it’s also good
to eat, you know, be part of the cultural
aspects of who we are as humans, it’s necessary
for our very survival. When you look at it from
that perspective and when you look at farmers and
livestock producers that produce that food and the
constraints they’re facing. These constraints
I like to think of, so they’re sitting in the
middle providing that food to us and there’s a whole
bunch of constraints around them. These constraints can be
broken down into what I refer to A-biotic,
non-living constraints that includes everything
from climate change, to diminishing land and water
resources, to environmental degradation, to regulations,
to policies, to labor, to immigration, all of these
are the non-living things, okay? Those are constraints and
I could go on and on about it for many hours. And then we’ve got
biological constraints, biotic constraints. These include everything
from insects and weeds and pathogens to genetics and
genomics and all the other things that are all
living things, okay? So those are the
constraints and so in that construct of constraints
then insects are a very significant constraint
and oh, by the way, also beneficial to our
ability to get food on the table that our livestock
producers and farmers are working really hard to
make sure that you and I can partake of it. So with that being the
case as long as humanity is around, as long as we
need to eat food, there’s going to be these
constraints and insects are going to be an
important part of it, okay? There’s two million
species that have been, of insects that have been
described, that is given a name, a specific name, a
scientific name, you know, the binomial nomenclature
that we call. Like the German cockroach
that I worked on in understanding it’s sexual
behavior is called blattella germanica, a
small cockroach from Germany, that’s
what it means. And so there are two
million such species and there are estimates that
there are probably another about 20 to 30, 10 to 15
fold more that we have no clue about and that we
need to continue to understand what
these things are. In just thinking of
humanity’s super specialization of the food
that we consume you know by trial and error over
the millennia as humanity became upright in Africa
and then spread out of Africa and we started
inventing agriculture and things like that, by trial
and error we figured out there are 50,000 species
of plants you and I can consume. Actually not just survive
but thrive on but what’s happened is because of
globalization and travel and movement and
migrations of peoples, we’ve narrowed it down to
about a dozen species that we all consume. Of those there’s
the big five. The big five are
wheat, rice, corn, potatoes and bananas,
plantains, okay? The production
of these things, you know we talk
about climate change. Climate change is not only
having a direct impact… Just this morning in
the Washington Post, today is
September 14, 2016, this morning’s Washington
Post had an article about work that we
supported by the way, to these folks at the
University of Florida and other places around the
world, that have shown that a one degree increase,
centigrade increase in temperature which has
already happened by the way if you compare where
we are today, compare, you know, back
50 years ago, 100 years ago is going to
have a negative impact of about four to six percent
reduction in yield in wheat, okay? So that’s the biological
constraints that is climate change,
direct impacts, increasing temperatures. And then you’ve
got droughts, then you’ve got extreme
weather events and all those other
things as well. Oh by the way, we’ve got
new insects coming in, new pathogens coming in. There is a pathogen
called UG98, UG99, pardon me, from Uganda. It’s like one of the most
devastating potential pathogens that we’ve got. And, you know, scientists
at Land Grant Universities and at the Agricultural
Research Service are working really hard to
figure out how to defeat that thing, new varieties
of wheat and things that they are
developing as well. Insects that
are coming in. You know we’ve
got soft flies, we’ve got Haitian flies,
we’ve got you name it, Russian wheat aphid came
in and these things are all coming in constantly. There’s like constantly
new things that are coming in that we have
to be mindful of. In fact, I’ll give you
an example of something that’s really truly
transformative that we’ve supported. In Kentucky back
in the spring, late spring they
discovered a field with one little field of a few
plants with wheat blast that was genetically the
same thing as the one in Bolivia in South America. Now how is that going
to jump over here? So they called one of the
world’s experts on this, Barbara Valent from
Kansas City University. She flew to
Kentucky, saw it, determined what is was and
APHIS got involved in it, Animal Plant Health
Inspection Service, USDA agency got
involved in it. They got a confirmation
from Rockville, Maryland, DNA analysis. They destroyed it so we
didn’t see it anymore across America and then
two weeks later there was a case in Bangladesh and
so she flew to Bangladesh at the request of U.S.
Agency for International Development,
same situation. So is that because
people are traveling? Is that because an
insect carried it? Is that because a
bird carried it? Maybe it was a water fowl
that are heading north from South America to go
to Alaska which as you know when you have
seedlings, water fowl will land and eat those
seedlings, okay? Maybe they pooped. They were carrying that
particular pathogen and they poop, they landed
here and they pooped over there only in
that one spot. We don’t know. We don’t know what
the source of it is, or, God forbid,
introduced intentionally, and that’s a
possibility as well. And so these are sorts
of things from an entomological’s
perspective, from a plant pathology
perspective, from a wheat science
perspective, these biological constraints
that we’ve got. We need to be very, very
mindful that, again, going back to the
statement I made. As long a humanity is
around, we’re going to have these constraints and
we have to make the investments necessary
to be able to protect humanity’s interest which
is nutritional security. Is there a program or
project or experience that comes to mind particularly
while you’ve been at NIFA that has taught you
something that you just did not expect? The, you know, just the
federal government itself. The ways of the federal
government that was like an “Ah Ha” moment for me. I’ve always lived
in academia, it’s like I never left
college and I stayed put and went on for the next,
I mean I got in college back in India in 1967, 68
and until 2012, I’ve been in quotes, “in college”
and academia is a particularly
unique animal, particularly American
academia and the government is even more
unique I think and that was an “Ah Ha” moment
for me but really more seriously I think to me
what’s the most fantastic thing and that I get to
live every day vicariously in is the ingenuity
that’s brought to bear on addressing these
compelling challenges that we’ve got, it’s mind
boggling to think of that there are people here in America
and around the world that are so incredibly, incredibly
curious and intelligent and can apply that
intelligence, that critical thinking
skills and problem solving skills to deal
with whatever. I mean, you know, talking
about this blast that came in, out of the blue it
shows up and you’ve got to call upon all of your
experiences to be able to decipher what it is
because we’re talking about the livelihoods of
literally hundreds of thousands of wheat farmers
in America and our food, yours and my food, our
bread, our, you know, whatever we’re going to be
consuming wheat in and so really to me it’s
that ingenuity, it’s the application of
that ingenuity and what we do really in going back to
the tag line that we’ve got about transforming
lives is user informed science that’s
transforming lives is not science for the
sake of science. It’s not science that goes on
a bookshelf and then forgotten. It’s really about science,
it’s the ingenuity that’s being applied to address
the societal challenges that we’ve got. That’s like oh my,
that, it jazzes me, it stokes me. Good, and I will draw this
interview to a conclusion offering you an
opportunity to share any additional stories
thoughts, predictions. (Laughter) You want me to predict
what’s going to happen in the first Tuesday of
November as well? (Laughter) Well you know,
really I appreciate the opportunity to share some
thoughts with you and on this archive that you all
are putting together at the National Ag Library, I
think it’s just fantastic. I’ve done this previously
as well as I said to you earlier and thanks very
much for including me in this as well. It’s been an amazing ride
for me and you know I stay on beyond this
Administration. I’ve got two more years
in my appointment. I’m in a six year term
appointment and then I discovered if I wanted to
I can get reappointed for another six years
beyond that as well. It’s written in
the Farm Bill. And so it’s been an
incredible opportunity for me again, going back
to where I come from, the circumstances that I
grew up in India and then coming here and
being able to, in quotes “pay it forward”
to America that fed me, educated me and
all that too. So really if
you’ll look at it, the mission area
that I work in, the Research Education
Economics Mission Area, Cathy Woteki, the
leadership that she has brought to bear, a very
thoughtful leadership that she has brought to
bear and not that I, she and I have had
interesting conversations, it’s not like I, you know,
keel over and say okay, yes ma’am, no,
I’ve never been, I’ve always been taught to
question authority and I think it’s my mother that,
she’s one of my heroes, my mother is and she taught
me never accept anything and everything people tell
you and you always got to question that. But she has brought that
style of leadership and I think Secretary Tom
Vilsack is a passionate proponent of this,
of, in general, food and agriculture but
he is, he loves research. Every other day, once
or twice a week, maybe once a week or every
other week or whatever, I’ll send him a little
story about some incredible discovery or
invention that’s been made. The most recent one that
I sent him is work being done at Iowa
State University. They’ve taken what’s
called graphene which is basically a whole bunch of
carbons, it’s like soot, shrunk together in the
form of a sheet, if you can imagine that, very, very
thin, very light sheet, very light. It’s even thinner than
paper and on it, funding that we provided, NIFA
provided, they figured out how to stick to that
graphene sheet circuits, electronic circuits. So now imagine, and this
is derived from plant material. Now imagine you
can make wearable, you know we talk about
wearable technologies, MIT, the media lab is doing
all these things as well, imagine this very
lightweight, I mean imagine this iPhone
that’s so small already or my Apple watch that’s so
small already, could be even lighter and smaller
because of graphene and the electronics that you
can put based on the results of the work
that we funded. So I sent a note to
Secretary Vilsack, he’s like a kid
in a toy store. He loves it, he eats it
up and he wanted more information about this. You know, every time I
sent him a note, he wants to briefed on it, he wants
to know more about it. And I think in his
heart of hearts, yes he’s an attorney,
he’s a small town mayor, etcetera, that he likes
to talk about but in his heart of hearts, I think
he’s a scientist as well because it’s
the curiosity, it’s that drive to
understand the nature of things and use that
knowledge to help make things better for people
around you. And so who’d
have thunk it? I never thought I
would be sitting here, here talking to you
and being within the Department of Agriculture
and this is a historic Administration as well. President Obama is an
African America to be the President and for me to
have been offered the opportunity to be the
Director of NIFA, oh man, talk about being
stoked this is, you can’t beat this. So, it’s been fantastic. Well good, well
thank you very much. Alright, thanks a bunch
Susan, appreciate it.

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