BOZEMAN — The director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture told a standing-room only crowd of about 75 gathered Wednesday at Montana State University that work is needed to ensure nutritional security of the nation’s food supply.
“It’s an existential threat,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “There are a lot more people dropping dead from this than from bombs. It’s a silent threat. We need to be very mindful of it.”
Ramaswamy also pointed to a growing number of chronic diseases in the United States, including Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as an indication of the challenges the agricultural community faces.
An increasing global population is a large part of the challenge, Ramaswamy added, and other challenges – including those associated with food, water, the environment, climate change, energy, health and poverty – are more pressing because of the increasing population. Experts predict the global population will surpass 9 billion in the next 25 years, he said.
Among other concerns, Ramaswamy noted that almost half of the food produced in developing countries is wasted before it makes it to the dinner table. And, while there are approximately 50,000 species of edible plants, only 15 to 50 of the species are used. That’s a problem, Ramaswamy said, particularly when disease – such as the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s – wipes out a crop.
“The remaining species (that are not used) have an incredible genetic makeup designed to deal with lots of issues,” Ramaswamy said.
[EasyDNNGallery|2349|Width|450|Height|450|position|left|resizecrop|False|lightbox|False|title|False|description|True|redirection|False|LinkText||]Ramaswamy said people share with the government a responsibility to ensure the issues are addressed. And, despite the challenges, Ramaswamy said there is hope. Scientists at MSU and other universities are conducting research that addresses pressing agricultural issues, and knowledge and new technologies can help ensure nutritional security, he said.
If the food that is currently wasted – which Ramaswamy said equals approximately 1,200 calories per man, woman and child worldwide each day – was instead consumed, it could make a big difference in global hunger and nutrition issues.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Ramaswamy said.
Ramaswamy’s lecture, which was hosted by the MSU Office of Research and Economic Development and the MSU College of Agriculture, concluded with a question and answer session. His visit also included meetings with MSU faculty, who shared current research on pest management, soil, weeds, crops and livestock. Ramaswamy also toured several MSU laboratories and met with MSU students and research administrators.
On Thursday, July 30, Ramaswamy will also visit Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, where he will speak with faculty and administrators. Like MSU, Little Big Horn College is a land-grant institution, and the two institutions partner with NIFA on issues related to food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences.
At NIFA, Ramaswamy oversees funds for a wide range of research, education and extension projects that address needs of American farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers. He has published more than 150 journal articles, book chapters, and a book and has received myriad awards as a scientist and department head. Those awards include being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Entomological Society of America, and a distinguished graduate alumnus of Cook College, Rutgers University.
In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Ramaswamy to serve as the director of NIFA. Prior to joining NIFA, Ramaswamy served as dean of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. He previously was associate dean of the Purdue University College of Agriculture, where he directed the university’s agricultural research programs from 2006 to 2009. Prior to joining the Purdue faculty, he was head of Kansas State University’s Department of Entomology and served as faculty with Mississippi State University and as a research associate at Michigan State University.
Ramaswamy’s visit to MSU followed a meeting by the world’s top experts in food production and security held in Bozeman earlier this year, when MSU hosted the United States Agency for International Development‘s (USAID) Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD), of which MSU President Waded Cruzado is a board member. BIFAD members spoke with MSU faculty and students on topics such as global food security and hunger, poverty, enhanced nutrition, natural resources and agriculture research.