May 3, 2010

Seven Science Questions with USDA Secretary

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United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, Dr. Molly Jahn

What is her background?

Jahn Ph.D ’88 studied biology at Swarthmore College as an undergraduate. She came to Cornell for her doctorate in Plant Breeding and Genetics.  From 1983 to 1988, Jahn completed a post-doctorate fellowship, and then, she taught plant genetics at Cornell from 1999 to 2006.  She said, “There is a great need nationally for environmental science and agricultural science students at high levels.”

What does she do?

She is “on loan” to the USDA from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  She serves as the acting USDA Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.  She bears responsible for USDA research by agencies on science and research.

What are her thoughts on agriculture’s future?

Dr. Jahn described the three main focuses of modern agriculture as “fuel, feed and food.”  She said, “There is a strong push to maintain and grow levels of productivity while maintaining, reducing environmental impacts.” This can be done through better understanding agricultural ecosystems.

What’s her top priority?

The USDA’s top priorities are:

–         Food security

–         Food safety

–         Nutrition

–         Diet related health concern

–         Bio-energy

–         Climate change

These large issues need broad approaches.  The USDA must coordinate investments and programs available for scientists to get into research and work together.

What are her thoughts on the Farm Bill?

Passed ever several years by Congress, the US Farm Bill implements the agricultural and food policy of the USDA.

Dr. Jahn believes the Farm Bill inaugurated different offices working together in more integrated ways.  For example, there was a clear recognition that, in order to solve problems, the USDA must with other groups as a unified whole, not as distinct departments.  For example, the EPA and USDA continue to work together.  One point of improvement is increasing the funding going to agricultural research, as it is chronically underfunded.  Giving importance to agricultural science by increasing budgets for intramural research agencies and universities is necessary.

Where does the future of US agriculture lie?

Diverse systems must serve more stable production, markets, and niches. Understanding that agricultural enterprises need to be profitable is also important, as more people cannot become engaged in agriculture if it does not provide a means to making a living.

Agriculture has many faces, from sizes to practices used.

What are some interesting facts?

–         One farmer feeds 155 people in the US

–         1/12 jobs are tied to agriculture in this country

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou