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New NIFA head talks bug sex, cooks crickets and promises to preach research gospel

A SPECIAL REPORT

An interview with Sonny RamaswamyDirector of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture



By JERRY HAGSTROM

Sonny Ramaswamy, the new director of the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, may be the leader the American agricultural research community desperately needs to explain to the American people why agricultural research is vital and to convince state and federal lawmakers to reverse the decline in public agricultural and food research budgets.

“My professional entomological career was on bug sex," Ramaswamy said near the beginning of an extensive interview with The Hagstrom Report, as he explained that his years as a university researcher had been focused on understanding and interfering with the sex lives of cockroaches and other insects to reduce their reproductive rates.

A few days later, Ramaswamy proved he could get the attention of a broader public and illustrate that insects have a positive place in the world when he cooked curried crickets during a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the land-grant college system at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (See following story.)

During the interview, Ramaswamy displayed a broad knowledge of the challenges facing American agricultural research today, particularly the difficulties convincing both state legislatures and Congress to provide funding for it.

When a second cut to the ag research budget was proposed during his time as dean of agriculture at Oregon State University, Ramaswamy explained, he drove across the state organizing farmers and other stakeholders to find a way to continue support for the program.

There is a “huge disconnect” between “the enormority of the challenges we face as humanity and the public investments we make,” Ramaswamy said. However, now he realizes he has a “bully pulpit” to bring attention to the importance of maintaining and increasing agricultural productivity to feed a growing world population and to address emerging food-related health problems and climate change.

Ramaswamy is only the second director of NIFA, an agency set up as USDA’s grant-making research division in the 2008 farm bill. Ramswamy succeeds Roger Beachy, who resigned after a short time in the position. The presidential appointment is one of the most prestigious in all of agricultural research and lasts six years.

Born in India, Ramaswamy received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore before coming to the United States to study for his doctoral degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Ramaswamy came to USDA from Oregon State University, where he was dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. He had previously been associate dean at the Purdue University College of Agriculture, head of Kansas State University’s Department of Entomology, served on the faculty of Mississippi State University, and was a research associate at Michigan State University.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Sonny Ramaswamy

Sonny Ramaswamy, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
HAGSTROM: How did you decide to go into agriculture?

RAMASWAMY: I started out in India wanting to be a writer. As a kid in India, I was way ahead of my cohorts and went into English literature. I wanted to become a writer and a journalist, not unlike what you’re doing.

Well, guess what happens? My mother – I’m a child of a single parent, my dad died when I was a little kid — raised four boys, and she only had an eighth-grade education when she got married. In India particularly — it’s true of the world, but particularly in Asian culture, whether it’s Chinese or Filipino or Indian or South Asian — they want you to become a doctor, number one. Barring that, you become an engineer, and so from there on, it goes down.

The distinct feedback to me was — I was already in the English literature program — that I was a really dumb little kid, and that I would never make it in the world being a writer, that there’s just a few and far between, that I might want to go ahead and get into the sciences so I could go become a doctor. I said, “No way. I don’t want to do that.” My eldest brother was already in the medical school. Not that I was afraid of blood and gore and things like that. It was just that I didn’t want to become a doctor. I wanted to be a writer.

In the meantime, my second brother — I’m the youngest of four boys — who was in the Agricultural College in Bangalore in India, in Southern India — applied for me to get into the vet school and into the ag school. In India, in the rest of the world, unlike the United States, a medical degree and veterinary degree are both undergraduate degrees.

Lo and behold, I get admission into both the vet school and the ag school. I wasn’t going to go to the vet school because I wasn’t going to become a doctor. So I ended up going to the ag school.

HAGSTROM: Were the vet school and the ag school the same?

RAMASWAMY: They were two separate colleges within this University of Agricultural Sciences, back in those days.

I got really turned on by entomology. I had my very first entomology class as a sophomore and a phenomenal teacher. Like they say, the rest is history. Here I am sitting in this chair now talking to you about agriculture.

HAGSTROM: So did you grow up in Bangalore?

RAMASWAMY: I was born in a city called Hyderabad, and then we moved to Bangalore. I grew up in Bangalore, the outsourcing capital of the world.

HAGSTROM: Did you have any farm background in your family?

RAMASWAMY: My dad and his family were immediately out of a farm, and indeed, they grew rice. “We had,” in quotes — coffee and oranges. My dad planted coffee and oranges.

We were in India last December, and all of us went to the village from which my ancestors come. We got to see the coffee and oranges that my dad had planted. It’s all a mess. It’s all these inheritance deals. My dad was one of the brothers, low on the totem pole. We didn’t inherit any of that. It’s all in somebody else’s hands.

HAGSTROM: He was one of the younger sons?

RAMASWAMY: Yes.

HAGSTROM: So, therefore, he left the farm?

RAMASWAMY: Yes, he did. He left the farm. He only had a high school education and ended up joining the British Indian Army and fought in World War II in Burma.

HAGSTROM: So when you graduated in Bangalore, you went to Rutgers.

RAMASWAMY: Yes, indeed. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in India. My undergraduate degree is a traditional four-year agricultural degree. Agricultural colleges in the ’50s and ’60s taught you hands-on row crop agriculture, livestock agriculture, and things like that. That’s what I learned, and the institution was established with the help of the University of Tennessee.

There is a long history. American land-grants adopted Indian agricultural colleges and from the bottom up built them up with the tripartite mission of research extension and teaching. I was weaned on the land-grant idea, and so it was the University of Tennessee that adopted the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. Ohio State adopted one in Punjab, and Michigan State adopted another one. Kansas State adopted the one in Hyderabad.

In your senior year in India, within agriculture, you major in a subject. I had really gotten turned on to entomology at that time, so entomology is my major, and plant breeding is my minor, along with a very traditional row crop agriculture. In land stock agriculture, I raised five different crops. When I say raised, you do everything, and the college basically loans you the inputs, et cetera. Then when you harvest it, you can sell it to the university, and you get some cash money out of the deal as well.

I got my master’s in entomology and came to New Jersey on January 13, 1976, to get my Ph.D. in entomology at Rutgers.

HAGSTROM: Most people in American agriculture don’t think of Rutgers, don’t think of New Jersey. They think of Purdue, they think of UC-Davis, et cetera. Tell me about your experience at Rutgers.

RAMASWAMY: Rutgers is the State University of New Jersey. It’s the land-grant institution of the state of New Jersey, and believe it or not, other than Interstate 95, the turnpike, et cetera, north and south of it, there’s some wonderful agriculture, particularly south. South Jersey has amazing agriculture. Because of the people of Italian descent in South Jersey, there’s a lot of vegetables and potatoes. There’s also cranberry bogs in New Jersey. That’s pretty big. Blueberries are pretty big, and they grow a lot of sweet corn. So there is agriculture, but it’s not the kind of agriculture that I was exposed to in the Midwest.

When I went to New Jersey, I went there to study cockroaches. Urban entomology is what I did, and Jersey, being a pretty serious urban state, that was apropos. So I studied the sex lives of cockroaches.

HAGSTROM: What did you learn about them?

RAMASWAMY: Well, I still have a lot of videotapes. In those days, it was actually 8-millimeter film that I would record. I was trying to understand the fundamental behaviors, et cetera, and I was involved in identifying the signals that the females and males use and you incorporate that. Once you get that understanding, you want to try to mitigate it. That’s the intent. So, I looked at the sensory receptors that males have that detect the female scent and studied their structure, their physiology, and how they function, et cetera.

After that, others came along and started undertaking other research, and now, indeed, the work that I did from a Ph.D. forms the basis of how to manage cockroaches in urban areas. These are the German cockroaches, not the big American cockroaches. The “water bugs,” as we call them, in the southern part of the United States, are little bitty guys.

HAGSTROM: They are the type that we have in the cities?

RAMASWAMY: You got it. I mean the inner cities. We have asthma in large inner-city populations. It is in part attributable to this particular cockroach. The intestinal lining sloughs off along with the feces, and in it are these proteins. Those proteins are the contributors to causing asthma in inner-city kids. This is a pretty serious challenge we’ve got.

There’s some unbelievable work that’s been done in inner-city Baltimore, in New Jersey, in New York, and places like that. They don’t transmit diseases of human health, although there’s a tantalizing link there; really their public health importance comes from the perspective of causing asthma. There is a terrible scourge in kids in inner cities. Cockroaches, the ones that you and I are familiar with in our homes — the “commensals,” as we call them, are ones that live with humans. They are not symbiotic. They just live with us. They’re not negative.

There is just a handful of species that are commensals. The American cockroach, the German cockroach, Asian cockroach, oriental cockroach, that’s about the extent of it. There’s another one called the smoky brown. There’s a handful that live in human domiciles, but there are several thousand species of cockroaches that live in their native habitat.

The commensals have all come from Africa. They live all over the world, and they have a very significant role to play in the biodiversity in the communities that they live in. If you go to the southeastern part of the United States, we have these cockroaches that feed on wood, rotting wood. They allow for wood to rot. They hasten that process, like termites. Termites and cockroaches are first cousins.

Termites are a more advanced type of cockroach. They help degrade wood, and they live in families, just like termites do, unlike solitary cockroaches. I can go on and on and on with you.

HAGSTROM: You speak English without either an Indian or British accent. How did this happen? Do you speak English today the way you spoke it when you came to the U.S.?

RAMASWAMY: When I hopped on the airplane to fly in, one of the guys I was sitting with asked me if I lived in New Jersey, and I said, “No. I’m going to New Jersey, but I don’t live there. I haven’t lived there yet.”

I went to Jesuit schools growing up in India, and the Jesuits, are really, really tough about communication skills. They spend a lot of time on helping young people develop the soft skills that we talk about along with the three R’s, no doubt about it. They do believe in corporal punishment as well. I was corporally punished many times. But they emphasized communication.

Secondly, the insidiousness of American culture is so much more today, but even back in the day, I grew up reading Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I was absolutely fascinated with the West and cowboys and Indians and things like that.

All of us brothers, we used to compete to read. We inherited that habit from our dad, who was an avid reader as well. The American movies, of course, the old Clint Eastwood movies and the John Wayne movies, I used to love to go watch them, Steve McQueen movies.

I also have an ear for languages. I speak multiple languages. As any typical child in India, you are immersed in three, four, five, six different languages growing up. That’s what I was raised with. I have an ear for language. I can pick it up. So here I am, with all of that.

When I travel around the country, people try to place me, “Okay. Where is this from?” They say, “There’s a bit of Texas or whatever. There’s a bit of Midwest. There’s a bit of New Jersey. What’s up with that?” And that’s pretty close — I lived in Mississippi for 15 years. I lived in the Midwest for 15 years.

HAGSTROM: You taught at several universities.

RAMASWAMY: I finished my Ph.D. at Rutgers. In the scientific disciplines, you have to apprentice after you finish your Ph.D. I was what’s called a “postdoctoral scientist,” researcher, at Michigan State University and worked on forest insects. My professional entomological career was on bug sex. I worked on insects that are pests of forests and identified a number of sex pheromones, the chemical signals that insects use for sexual purposes, and then I moved to Mississippi. I was a professor there. I went through the ranks, and then I went to Kansas State University. I was the head of the Entomology Department there.

HAGSTROM: In Mississippi, did you work on southern forestry?

RAMASWAMY: No, I worked on cotton insects. If you go to the landscape in the [South] and even in the Midwest, there are traps that are utilized to monitor the occurrence of these particular species of insects, and those traps were based on research that I had done. In my lab, we optimized the sex pheromone blend. There’s a suite of chemicals that females utilize to attract the male, and it has to be in a very precise ratio of that suite of chemicals. We determined the precise ratios, and that is utilized today, in the South and North America. If you were to go and ask the cotton farmer, cotton crop consultant what they use, it is based on the formula that we developed in my lab.

I worked also on how females find the cotton plants, and that’s a very critical decision-making step that females make. It’s the adult moth that can fly around and colonize new areas. These moths or caterpillars don’t get around very far. Some of them might balloon out. They make a silk and string, and the caterpillar hangs, and it’s drawn a little bit. That’s how gypsy moths spread throughout. Gypsy moth adults don’t fly. The caterpillar is spread by being blown around by the wind, like pollen does.

In the cotton insects that I worked on, the tobacco budworm and the corn earworm, it’s the adult that goes around. The adult makes a critical decision, because she could lay her eggs on a poisonous plant versus a plant that allows her young to grow and develop. That’s a critical decision that has to be made. Just like in humans, given a choice between something nasty and something that’s good, you make a decision. You use your sensory system and what you have learned. There’s a whole suite of things that go on. That’s exactly how insects do it as well. I mean exactly.

I rigged up wires to their nerves and in their brains to look at how do they detect if there is a bitter substance, how do they detect if there is a sweet substance? Over the years at my lab, we looked at how does vision play a role in this, how does color play a role in this, how does the sense of taste play a role in this, how does the sense of smell play a role in this, how do the tactile senses play a role? All of these things, I have published over the years. I also worked on mosquitoes, along the way, on riceland mosquitoes.

We worked on a whole bunch of insects, but all of it related to the reproductive biology of insects, all of the work that I did over the years. I got talked into throwing my hat in the ring for the department headship at Kansas State University and went there. I was the head of the department, I was a university distinguished professor there, and I continued my research. I was in Kansas, where there is not a whole lot of cotton grown.

HAGSTROM: But there’s more now. Sen. Pat Roberts [R-Kan.] keeps talking about it.

RAMASWAMY: Harper County, they don’t have to worry about dealing with insects and pathogens and all that as much as they do down in Mississippi. The cotton that’s harvested is ginned in Oklahoma. With a lot less inputs, they can grow cotton. So the acreage started increasing. They were going from switching from wheat to cotton, but then ethanol happened at the same time. So people started really switching significantly to corn, because there’s a lot more money to be made per acre.

HAGSTROM: You kept working on cotton. You didn’t have to do bugs that affect wheat or grains?

RAMASWAMY: No, I did not. I had my research program. Basically, I continued to do the work that we’re doing.

But we were working on a lot of insects. We worked on Monarch butterflies and insects on corn. If you look at my résumé, you will see all manner of publications from those days on non-cotton insects as well.

HAGSTROM: How did you get to Purdue and Oregon?

RAMASWAMY: I was out there in Kansas for a few years having a great time, and suddenly, I got one of those calls where I said, “Oh, my gosh. Really?” Finally, on the very last day at about four o’clock in the afternoon, I broke down and said, “Okay. I will throw my hat in the ring.” This is Purdue.

I still kept my research, except it was in Kansas. I did my research by remote control, and indeed even helped my postdoc repair equipment using a Web camera. He would hold the Web camera, and we would talk, “Okay. This is how you do it.”

I had a full-fledged lab back in Kansas. We were doing the research, and we had lab meetings like we always did, except that we used IT video. And I was not in the same room. I was several hundred miles away. I ran my research. That was my sort of exit strategy. If I failed miserably as an administrator — go back to being a researcher and teach.

I love to teach, too. I did not teach per se at Purdue, but certainly ended up [giving] a lot of guest lectures in a number of courses. I kept my research going, wrote grant proposals, mentored students. I had graduate students. I had undergraduate students. I had veterinary students working in my lab back in Kansas. It was pretty cool to be able to do that.

Everything I did was by example. If I talked to somebody about doing research or writing a grant proposal or the joy of getting a grant or the tears of being rejected — I’ve been through all that.

I was really, really much broader in terms of focus, agricultural focus. In Indiana, you’ve got beans, corns, and wheat as well, but beans and corns were big crops. You’ve got cow/calf operations. You’ve got swine, and you’ve got eggs. Egg production in Indiana is huge, and turkeys and ducks. The world’s largest producer of farm-raised ducks is Maple Leaf Farms.

I was in China, in Beijing. You know how they offer you Beijing duck, Peking duck. They have these roundtables, turntables, and we’ve got this fantastic Peking duck. So I leaned over to my host and said, “Can you find out where the duck came from?” because I had a suspicion. Sure enough, it was from Maple Leaf Farms in Indiana.

I worked as the experiment station director and the keeper of agricultural research at Purdue. Then again, I got yet another one of those phone calls. This time, it was this headhunter and her assistant, a very persistent young woman, calling me two to three times a week and bugging me.

Sonny Ramaswamy

Sonny Ramaswamy as dean
of Oregon State University's
College of Agricultural Sciences

I said “Who the hell is going to go to Oregon from Indiana?” Things were really going well at Purdue, but she persisted. Finally, again, on the last day, I said, “You know what, if I get called for an interview, I get a free trip to Oregon. I’ve never been to Oregon. There’s a chance to go, rack up one more of my states that I wanted to do.”

Sure enough, the short list, the applications, and then I get called for an airport interview in Oregon, in Portland. They had me back for a full-fledged interview on campus and I got offered the job. Whoops, what are we going to do now?

I’m glad I accepted it. Oregon agriculture is phenomenal, nothing like it that I’ve ever seen. Where we had a handful of commodities in Indiana, just about five, in Oregon, there were about 225 different commodities that the college worked on, everything from albacore tuna and oysters and Dungeness crabs to whales to meat and potatoes and wheat and everything in between you can think of.

HAGSTROM: Grapes and wine.

RAMASWAMY: Unbelievable wine. I had a beer program. I had a wine program. We created a Beaver Classic Cheese that has [become] primo artisan cheese.

In the three years I was there, it was really a very tough environment in the sense of the budget situation. I arrived there on a Thursday, and the following Monday, they told me that I had to cut $10 million.

I traveled 6,000 miles in the first 100 days around the state, basically to find out from the stakeholders — the farmers and ranchers and folks in the organic production system, sustainability, et cetera — the whole nine yards. I had every community and talked to a whole bunch of stakeholders in the 6,000 miles. We came up with a plan and how we were going to deal with it.

We restructured the college. We reduced its footprint, and a few departments actually lost a third of the faculty positions as a result. The approach I used was a collaborative approach. Ultimately, it was my decision, but I didn’t want to sit in a vacuum and make decisions. Plus, I didn’t know about Oregon.

So it was very highly appreciated. Whether you go to the Oregon Farm Bureau or the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association or the Oregon Environmental Council or the Oregon Tilth folks, they all speak to the approach that we ended up using to make the changes.

Ultimately, we ended up losing a total of $20 million of the budget.

Then last year in February 2011, the governor proposed we’re going to whack another $20 million.

HAGSTROM: What’s the total budget?

RAMASWAMY: The total budget — the biennium — was $60 [million] plus another $20—$80 million, and so they basically looked at reducing us quite a bit. When the governor proposed that, I, while the rest of the state was out spring-breaking, drove Friday to Friday across the state, traveled 3,000 miles in that eight-day period and rallied the troops. We got them all to go to Salem or write letters.

It was great to see it was not an R issue or a D issue. Everybody stepped up and turned the tide around, and we ended up actually having only an $8 million reduction instead of a $20 million reduction. So the legislature added back $12 million from what the governor had proposed. That was fantastic, because it basically allowed us to maintain the footprint.

Oregon, like other states, has a network of branch experiment stations where you do site-specific research that is very critical, because the habitat is different, the ecosystem is different, the climate is different, the soil is different, et cetera, and part of the deal was we would have to close several of those down.

I said, “Okay. How about we come up with a plan where the local stakeholders provide 25 percent of the operating budget for those stations?” Initially, there was a lot of reluctance, saying, “Why should we pay for this? We are already paying for it in our taxes as farmers,” which is true. Then I pointed out the state is not contributing anymore.

After a lot of back-and-forth, going around talking to a lot of people, basically listening, they figured out this is appropriate, that they needed to step up. So all the commodity groups — wheat, potatoes, cherries, et cetera — all stepped up, and on May 5, a lot of communities started voting in tax districts.

Malheur County, which is on the Oregon-Idaho border, a small county, successfully passed the taxes. They saw the vision that we painted, which is a shared approach, and we really needed to protect research and extension, without which the state of Oregon would hurt. They saw the jobs that were created as a result of the agricultural endeavors.

That is how we painted it. Ultimately, it’s job security is what it is. It’s food security. That equates to jobs security, so now it’s the word of experience.

HAGSTROM: How did you come to NIFA?

RAMASWAMY: Then again, it’s one of those deals where you get that darn phone call. I was having a blast as the dean. So I said okay to this opportunity here, and there is a long vetting process that needs to take place. So here I am in this position.

HAGSTROM: What’s your philosophy of research? How do you approach the job of director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture?

RAMASWAMY: NIFA is the agency that enables both research and education. Education in the traditional classroom as well as in the real world through, capital E, Extension. So my approach is that NIFA is an enabler of the discoveries that need to be made, and those discoveries need to be translated. Things that are translated need to result in innovations, and ultimately, they have to be able to create solutions to the very, very difficult challenges we face, not the least being able to feed [people].

Today, we’ve got 7 billion people, and just in another 10 more years, we’ve got 8 billion people coming down the pike. So we have to figure that out.

That’s my take, and that’s what I’ve done for all my three decades of having worked as a bench scientist as well as an educator. So that’s what NIFA does exquisitely well, NIFA and its predecessor — CSREES [the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service].

I was given a perspective about what NIFA does, and then my experience is here in the United States as well as my breadth of knowledge and traveling around the world, having grown up in a poor country, about lacking food and things like that, having had the privilege of traveling in Africa and working in Africa, traveling in South America and other parts of Asia.

It is about applying this unbelievable knowledge that’s created as a result of the investments that NIFA makes, applying it to very, very critical challenges the society faces, whether it’s about food or energy or water or land or adapting to the climate change and things like that, that we’ve got this variability, that we’re seeing this craziness. That’s what, at the core, NIFA does.

HAGSTROM: What do you think NIFA’s greatest challenges are now?

RAMASWAMY: Right off the top, there are a couple of challenges, one of which is the unbelievable disconnect in America, in the world for that matter, but particularly in America, between the challenges that we face and the investments that we make a society.

The second challenge is the lack of recognition of the importance of food and agriculture to our nation. Particularly in our nation, in America, we take this for granted, completely for granted. There is not that respect that it deserves. Everybody is worried about cyber security and putting a man on Mars and energy and things like that.

All that is moot if you do not figure out how to get food on the table, how to get water, how to get clean air, how to protect our natural resources. If you can’t do that, cyber security, is absolutely moot. We will reverse back to the Stone Age if we don’t worry about it right now.

My role as the new director is to be the spokesperson and have the bully pulpit, to remind people about what’s at stake for our nation, for the world, because America feeds the world.

We talk about how food and agriculture is good for rural America. Without that part, urban America is toast. People forget the critical nature of food, water, air, et cetera, that are important to everyone, 100 percent of the population, not just to that 2 percent of the population or less that’s on the land.

HAGSTROM: I understand that there is [a provision] in the farm bill that earmarks money for classical breeding. What do you think about this amendment? Would this be good for you?

RAMASWAMY: Congress already puts very significant constraints on how we spend the money, and they tell us these are the things that you’re going to do. As part of the farm bill, we have to support research and education, and it’s very, very prescriptive about what you can or cannot do. No doubt about it. We have to adhere to it very, very carefully, very thoughtfully.

The sad irony is [the provision] is about classical breeding. So we follow the GAO’s definition of classical breeding. Basically, the bottom-line definition is that it is to create varieties, breeds of plants and animals that have important traits for us, characteristics for us, without the transfer of genes from other organisms. That is the definition that GAO [the General Accountability Office] uses.

Just last week, I looked at our portfolio of what we funded since the 2008 farm bill was passed, so three years plus. We have funded 41 projects worth $54.8 million under the rubric of classical breeding. So it is not a small sum of money that has been invested.

We’re going to have to have all of the tools in our tool kit if we’re going to be able to feed these 9 billion-plus people we are going to have in just a few more years. We have specific expectations that the Congress lays on us, but then [they] say we’re going to go ahead and take money and set it aside. Unfortunately, I think the people who have been asking for this sort of amendment are folks that don’t have the information. Or maybe there’s a misperception.

HAGSTROM: They think that you are spending too much on biotech, I assume. You said $54.8 million was spent on classical breeding. How much have you spent on biotech?

RAMASWAMY: You’ve got to define biotech. Are you talking about transgenics? When I say transgenics, transferring genes from one organism to another. That’s a really critical thing. The investments in research on transgenics were approximately $3 million.

HAGSTROM: Is Congress imposing an onerous amount of reporting requirements on you in the farm bill?

RAMASWAMY: We provide a lot of reports to Congress already, and I need to get into the details of it. This is an evolving process, as you know, in Congress. For me to say something now would be premature.

HAGSTROM: Because you have worked in several land-grant colleges — Mississippi to Kansas to Purdue to Oregon — can you make any overall observations about the land-grant system and also differences that you see by region?

RAMASWAMY: There’s an uncanny commonality and similarity between the land-grant institutions. At the end of the day, each one of them continues to adhere to the principle articulated by the Morrill Act, which is, number one, providing that inclusive environment for educating young people, but not just educating — the practical education. The land-grants, adhere to that absolutely and positively. It’s part of the DNA.

The second thing that is ingrained is that the research and extension efforts are not done in a vacuum. It is done truly in a participatory mode. There is this conversation that takes place, and that’s a very critical difference between what land-grants do in America versus what the non-land-grants do, the public institutions as well as the private institutions. It is very much participatory.

When Abraham Lincoln talked about USDA being a people’s department and the land-grant university as being the economic engine when he signed the Morrill Act into law, all of this was really from the perspective of the connectivity at the end of the day.

The third thing about the kind of research that is undertaken by land-grants — it is, at the end of the day, about the problems and challenges that people face, whether it’s farmers and ranchers or just average moms and pops.

Today, we work on things attributable really to climate change, bioenergy, but we have still not taken our eyes off the ball about food production. We’ve still got to do it.

We are coming up with new ways of dealing with pests. We’re coming up with new ways of breeding crops, dealing with nitrogen use efficiencies. Nitrogen is such an expensive proposition for our farmers, but most of it goes down the drain, in part contributing the hypoxia situation in the Gulf of Mexico. How do you address these sorts of challenges?

There is the addressing of the immediacy of the challenges and the long-term view as well that you’ve got to keep your eye on. That is the view the land-grants have taken, and they have not sort of fallen off that DNA that they inherited.

I was very proud to say the word “agriculture” is in my name. We’re not going to walk away from that, absolutely, positively not, as long as the word “agriculture” is there, as long as people need to be fed, as long as jobs need to be created attributable to this wonderful enterprise. That’s what land-grants are all about. It’s incredible.

HAGSTROM: I keep hearing from people in the agricultural community that within the land-grant schools in some places, medical schools or medical research has become very prominent, that agriculture may not even be dominant. On a larger scale, people are so concerned about whether agriculture gets its fair share of scientific research dollars. How do you feel about that?

RAMASWAMY: There is some truth to it, but it is not completely true. Agricultural colleges have changed with the times. You go to Rutgers, there’s not a whole lot of agriculture that’s done per se, no row crop agriculture; however, they do produce vegetables. They are involved with environmental management, natural resources stewardship and things like that. They have to necessarily switch to that. That’s one aspect of it.

The second aspect is that there is a connectivity. In the good old days, we used to talk about how we’ve got to put calories on the table. It was all about farm to fork. Well, guess what? The challenges that we face in our society today, attributable to the excessive amounts of calories we consume, related to cardiovascular disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and things like that, in large measure are attributable to the food that we consume. So there is a natural connectivity between the capital and cultural enterprise and health issues.

We talk about these land-grant institutions, and I talk about how it’s not just farm to fork. It’s farm to fork to healthy outcomes.

The third aspect is that if you look at the funding situation for agricultural research, that has gone down significantly across the board in America. In America, we’ve lost about a quarter to a third of our footprint.

HAGSTROM: This is the funding from the state governments?

RAMASWAMY: Yes. It’s a terrible situation that we’re in.

When you have faculty that are in positions and their promotion and tenure and their rewards and are attributable to the grants that they get, attributable to the papers that they publish, attributable to the students that they graduate, they’re going to go where the action is. Where is the action? [The National Institutes of Health] has more than doubled the funding in the same period of time that agriculture has lost a quarter to a third of its funding. The National Science Foundation is another agency that’s received significant increases. Department of Energy, significant increases.

These faculties are starting to go to these agencies. I’ve got to remind everybody — it’s not like agricultural colleges are undertaking medical research. It's the continuum between agriculture and health.

Going back to Oregon State University, we had faculty that worked on nanotechnology, sensors, biosensors and things that could detect pathogens that were, of course, relevant to the biomedical arena as also for the agricultural, whether it’s animal health or public health. You have that possibility of addressing both sorts of challenges.

Really the land-grant colleges have adjusted themselves with the times. These are the folks, combined with the wonderful Agricultural Research Service efforts that we’ve got, who are addressing absolutely, positively production agriculture issues. There is no doubt about it. If anybody wants to, I will personally take them on a tour or make arrangements for them to go around and see the kinds of work that’s being done. It’s unbelievable.

Land-grants continue to ensure the competitiveness of agriculture itself.

HAGSTROM: How do you feel about the sense of competition between the land-grant colleges and other institutions that also want access to USDA money?

RAMASWAMY: If you look at the challenge that we face today, nobody has the market cornered on having the intellectual capabilities. Nobody. And we have got to bring the best brains to the table. Those brains may be vested, to a large extent, in land-grant institutions in America, no doubt about it, because we have that tradition, that history, and that presence that we’ve got. But we also want to bring folks that are at private institutions or public institutions with the right funding to folks at Indiana University or the University of Michigan or these non-land-grant public institutions which provided funding for people — Princeton or Harvard, for example.

If you look at increasing nitrogen use efficiency or water use efficiency, you want to get the best brains available. There are coalitions being formed between the land-grants and the non-land-grants — public and private both — and private enterprise all coming together on the endeavor of trying to deal with these global challenges of human health and poverty and hunger and food production and environmental stewardship and water and climate change. If we don’t say that we want to bring everybody together to address those questions, we are in deep trouble as a humanity.

HAGSTROM: You mentioned that in Oregon, you went around the state, and you organized with stakeholders, and you avoided a $12-million cut. How do you feel about the way in which the support for agriculture is organized on a national basis? If you were to compare what you did in Oregon with the lobbying or support system that surrounds agriculture, is it strong enough? Does it need to be improved?

RAMASWAMY: If you talk about research, agricultural research and extension, capital re-extension, it’s like mom and apple pie. Everybody steps up and says, “Oh, yeah, we’re supportive of it.” However, agriculture sadly does not speak with one voice, and in part, it is because the corn growers and the wheat growers and the livestock folks, each one brings a slightly different perspective. You have got the [American] Farm Bureau [Federation]. You’ve got the [National] Farmers Union. You’ve got the various commodity groups. You’ve got folks that have an interest in organic production. You have folks that have an interest in conventional production and on and on. There’s a wide array of approaches.

HAGSTROM: And they’re competing with each other?

RAMASWAMY: They’re competing with each other. Everybody rallies around the one word “health.” Right? It doesn’t matter, but I wish folks rallied around agriculture as well.

If you look at how these conversations unfold, at whatever level, whether it’s the level of Oregon or at the level of the United States, agriculture sadly is basically not a unified single voice.

But the interesting thing is that when you talk to the cotton people or the corn people or the Farm Bureau or the organic coalition, they all talk about how research is very critical. This is what has kept America ahead of the game. I dare say there is one thing that has had a greater influence on America’s greatness and competiveness, and it is, capital “A,” Agriculture, no doubt about it. It’s that research enterprise that we’ve got in the United States, and we have a history of it. It’s a proven history. So that’s why everybody rallies around it.

HAGSTROM: How do you feel about U.S. competitiveness in research at the present time? Some people who are worried that either the regulations surrounding biotechnology or lack of public sector research may be diminishing our position.

RAMASWAMY: In part, it’s very true. What we’ve got is this cadre of scientists around the country that are ready and willing, that have the expertise, that have the knowledge, that have the passion to address these very daunting challenges we’ve got, but the disconnect between that and the public investments that are needed, there’s certain things that you’ve got to have public investments in, not exclusively, but you’ve got to have public investments.

You cannot say, “Oh, well, let the private enterprise folks take care of it,” because private enterprise will go and invest in things that makes them at the end of the day money. That might be in a particular crop or a particular trait or whatever that particular thing is that they’re interested in.

What the public takes on is basically the broader needs that are there that need to be addressed, and then there is a spinoff that takes place. Look at Monsanto and Syngenta, et cetera. They wouldn’t have been what they are as seed companies today, bio-based seed companies, not chemicals-based companies. It is because of the work that was done on hybrid corn in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, that got spun off in the ’60s by the Iowa States, by the Purdues, by the Illinois, and they got picked up. That enabled private enterprise to set up.

There are these orphan crops that nobody accepts that we need to address.

HAGSTROM: What would be the examples of that?

RAMASWAMY: Orphan crops would be a lot of the vegetables and fruit. This is the healthy stuff. There are very few companies that find value.

Secondly, who is going to step up to take care of the water needs that we’ve got? Who is going to take care of the air needs that we’ve got? We ought to protect the air, the water, the land. You think private enterprise is going to come in and do it? It has to be public investments that need to be addressing.

That water issue is going to be the defining issue for the world but particularly the United States. I mean, like somebody said, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of the war when it comes to water.’ We already know from our history about the water wars in the Western part of the United States. What company is going to step up?

So there is need. What company is going to step up to do things related to health? If my intent as a company person is that all I want to do is increase the number of tons of seed I’m going to sell because that’s what I want to do, when they address the questions of the health challenges that our population faces, somebody needs to be doing that. So the public has a definite involvement.

In New Zealand, they took their equivalent to USDA and NIFA, and the government said, “We’ll just give the money out to the commodity groups and private enterprise to distribute it.”

HAGSTROM: Really?

RAMASWAMY: Well, guess what? Private enterprise is not going to come in and invest money in genomics, for example. You say, “Why is genomics important?” We take these wild varieties of soybeans and wild varieties of corn, and we look at their gene sequences, look at the cultivated ones. You can data-mine. Are there particular traits in those wild varieties that can resist the pathogens, that can resist the bugs, that can resist the weeds? Dreaded diseases such as wheat rust — UG99 — are coming down the pike, it’s a very critical thing. Public investments have to be addressing those kinds of things.

It’s not an either/or. Let’s figure out an “and” approach to this. We’ve got to bring in the intellectual capacity that is invested in all different places. We have to figure it out and bring in those monetary resources as well. So it’s a partnership.

HAGSTROM: Speaking of the monetary resources, what’s your view of the private foundation that’s being created in the Senate Agricultural Committee farm bill and how it would be controlled?

RAMASWAMY: In terms of the foundation, I think it will be fantastic.

It would allow us to have a corpus of funds that could then help enhance the value of the additional public investments made, because private enterprise is stepping into this as well. I hope it’s done.

If you look at the other agencies and other departments, they have got foundations like this, including the U.S. Forest Service. [The Food and Drug Administration] has a foundation. NIH has a foundation. Agriculture, again, by the very nature of its own success — we tend not to give it its due and recognition. So the idea of a foundation is very critical for us.

In terms of how it’s constituted and how it’s set up, there’s good history of how these things are done with other agencies, and I’d say there might be some lessons learned of things to do and things not to do. That’s the approach that I would hope is going to be set up.

I hope something like this comes out, but at the same time, I hope that it doesn’t mean that there will be concomitant reduction in investments in the actual research and extension and education enterprise that we need to continue to invest in as well. There is not a sort of, “Oh, this is a quid pro quo. We do this here, and we are going to cut you concomitantly.”

HAGSTROM: As I understand it, USDA’s grant-making Agriculture and Food Research Initiative has been giving out some large awards and some small awards. What kind of a balance do you want?

RAMASWAMY: In the last few weeks I’ve lifted the hood and looked inside of it, and I’m trying to figure out why it is we do these kinds of things. The idea of providing large grants like DOE and NIH have done, to address these really serious challenges makes sense, but the idea would be there’s a balance between the individually driven projects as well as these multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, multi-institutional large grants as well. You want to have a balance between those two.

I have been asking myself, “Is it tenable if we don’t get funding up to what’s been authorized?” AFRI has been authorized to get up to $700 million, and [has gotten] about $260-270 million. If we get to that authorized level, I think it would be a different ball game altogether. Then you come up with this sort of a blended portfolio of things that you’re going to do, because you’ve got to have research undertaken on the individual component-type things. That needs to be done.

These large grants are the systems approach; that is, you look at the entire system — soil scientists, hydrologists, plant breeders, geneticists, physicians, chemists, engineers, economists, and sociologists all working together. That’s the systems approach, but you’ve still got to have the bottom-line plant breeding work and the genetics work and the entomology work and things like that. You’ve got to have this balance.

In the next few months, I will have gotten a much better sense of what it is that we are going to do. We are going to probably see some changes. I don’t know if I’m there yet in terms of how I’m going to do it, but one of the things that’s happened is we don’t have the wherewithal to make those really, really large grants. When I say the really, really large grants, we’re talking about the $40-50 million range. In the next few weeks and months, I’ll have a better sense of it and come up with a balanced approach.

HAGSTROM: You talked about the relationship between all these different kinds of colleges. What about the relationship between the USDA Agricultural Research Service system, the land-grant schools and any other institutions?

RAMASWAMY: The ARS and land-grant system that we’ve got in America is unmatched, unparalleled by anybody in the world. What happens is that the land-grant colleges tend to take a shorter view of the questions that they address, and ARS is able to take the longer view. There is a sweet handoff that takes place. The longer view feeds in and informs the shorter view. The work that is undertaken by ARS informs what land-grant institutions do. There is the beauty, this exquisite situation that we’ve got of this handoff that takes place.

A great example — most recently, the tomato genome was sequenced. That’s a classic example of the continuity between the individual component-type research that was done by land-grant universities that contributed to and ultimately allowed people like Jim Giovannoni, a USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist at Cornell University, to take the long view, the big picture as it were. So therein is this nice continuity, that continuum that occurs.

HAGSTROM: What message would you most like to convey to the American public?

RAMASWAMY: If there is one message, it is the enormity of the challenges we face as humanity and the investments, the public investments we make. There’s a huge disconnect, a huge disconnect. Everybody thinks that we don’t have money, but it’s like eating seed corn, our own seed corn

Research is equivalent to the seed corn, research and education, and the message that I’d like to convey is these endeavors have contributed to America’s greatness. There’s no other country that’s been able to match what America has done, and let’s not forget it comes down to America’s competitiveness, our ability.

The research that we undertake in the food and agricultural enterprise allows us to eat wholesome food, nutritious, high-quality food at a very, very low price compared to anybody on earth. It allows us the luxury of being able to invest our time and money and energy into other great inventions, whether it’s putting a man on the moon — now we want to put a man on Mars — or whatever else that we aspire to do.

In my mind, these things related to the discovery, all the great inventions and discoveries in America would not be possible if we had 80 percent of the people eking out a living on the land.

What this unbelievable enterprise of research and extension and education has allowed us to do is that. We have less than 2 percent of our population actually working the land. That means we've got more than 98 percent that have had the luxury of time to invent, to innovate, to discover.

HAGSTROM: But aren’t we in danger of not putting those resources in, so that this can be continued into the future?

RAMASWAMY: That’s the problem — the disconnect that’s there in America’s mind-set, in the public’s mind-set. They think that, “Well, America needs to walk away from public investments,” because it’s all about private enterprise. I think that’s an unfortunately false choice if we did make that decision.

HAGSTROM: Do you hope as part of your responsibilities here, over a six-year appointment, that you can take that message to the general public?

RAMASWAMY: You better believe it. This is a bully pulpit for me, and I’m going to preach the gospel of food and agriculture.