USDA sets 5-year research agenda

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

American agriculture is among the world’s most efficient and productive producers, feeding the country and much of the world. That’s thanks in part to a long history of research. Now the Agriculture Department has set forth a new five-year research agenda. USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Scott Hutchins joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk about what’s in it.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Hutchins, good to have you on.

Scott Hutchins: Thank you very much. Pleased to be with you today.

Tom Temin: So there are some big themes, five big themes you have outlined in this agenda for research. Tell us what they are.

Scott Hutchins: Well, thank you. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the USDA science blueprint. Really, What the teams are, they really represent what we believe to be the key components that will represent the next era of agriculture. The key components that we need to understand and develop and ultimately implement to ensure that US agriculture continues to thrive and continue to provide for the US public as well as the world, its output. So there are five themes we’ve identified that fit in that category. One is what we refer to a sustainable ag intensification. And sustainable ag intensification really does ensure that we balance productivity and profitability with the environment and ensuring that we’re doing the right thing that allows farmers to have a very viable economic enterprise, but also to continue to support their soil health and the land that they have farmed. There are many, many components to each of these themes, and so, within sustainable ag intensification, for example, we would include things such as regenerative agriculture, which really works to ensure that the soil has a skin, as it were, a biological skin that allows it to be resilient and not just to climate, but also to other kinds of things. And so aspects such as that allow us to effectively get more out of the same piece of land so that we can make that land healthy with the best practices, but also minimize the amount of land and investment that we need in agriculture so that we can use that within conservation, which, of course, that helps a lot with carbon sequestration and topics like that. A second big theme of the science blueprint is ag climate adaptation. Now there’s lots of research that we’re doing the USDA and other places that really work on the notion of mitigating a changing climate. But irrespective of that, we always need to be prepared. And US agriculture has always been resilient over time. And our goal here is to ensure that we continue that resiliency. And we need to bring to bear some very critical tools to help us do that – tools such as gene editing and genome design and the kinds of things that will allow us to take really big jumps and adaptability of not just our annual crops, but of crops such as orchards and the perennial types of crops. So ag climate adaptation is another key theme. A third theme is food and nutrition translation, and the USDA has always been very much involved in nutrition research and is a key contributor to the dietary guidelines with our other colleagues within USDA. But where we see this from a research and a future standpoint going is this concept of precision nutrition, where we will ultimately see the convergence of a number of sciences that allow us to really understand with your individual DNA on what kinds of chronic diseases you may be susceptible to or prone to. And in many cases we can design diets and we can identify foods that will be supportive of you as an individual. I just think that’s an incredibly exciting area for the future of nutrition. And then one of the things that has been a hallmark of USDA has really been its ability to develop value added innovations. And this is a very broad theme. But you can think of it as broadly as the current focus on industrial hemp, which is an entirely new crop innovation, for the most part. But you can also think about it as the downstream products from that, that would come from hemp. But it also includes very broadly bio fuels and bio energy, not just the ones we think of today, but the ones that ultimately we believe will fuel jets and other applications. And it also includes the use and the focus on reducing food loss and waste. So how do we use products that otherwise might be lost to create a new kinds of foods and dry foods and the types of ingredients that we can ensure we’re really getting the most out of the agriculture product that already is being produced. So it’s a very wide area, but the USDA has been very successful at developing unknown number of patents and transferring those technologies to the private sector. And then the last theme is what we refer to as ag science policy leadership. And this is less of a program theme as it is, really the United States and USDA kind of putting a stake in the ground and saying everything that we do is gonna be data based and science driven. And we believe that we need to have a very transparent, clear, rigorous but achievable regulatory approach, for example, So when you hear groups talk about, or countries talk about the precautionary principle, that’s not a scientific principle. That’s a political principle and our focus is really to ensure that very effective and science-based risk assessment occurs so that entrepreneurs and the innovations that are coming from the public and the private sector have an opportunity actually to find their way to the farm to increase productivity. So, Tom, those are the five themes that we think will represent the blueprint for the next five years, at least.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Scott Hutchins, deputy undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics (REE) at the Agriculture Department. And the USDA, of course, has its own very large research establishment in several locations. How much research is done by USDA itself, versus what you fund at, say, the land grant colleges and other institutions that do research through grants?

Scott Hutchins: Great question – leading this mission area in USDA is a real honor. And we have four really just fantastic agencies that make up this mission area. One that you referenced here is the Agricultural Research Service, or ARS. And that’s really our intramural or our internal research organization. So we have 90 facilities across the United States. We actually have four that are outside the United States as well, that really works on agricultural challenges of a national nature, of the kinds of things that we really need to make sure supports all aspects of agriculture. That research team – upwards of 8,000 staff over those 90 locations – is really a very powerful force and really the most powerful, if you will, internal research force in the world. And so they led to so many solutions and so much innovation that it really has been a key reason U. S agriculture has been always on the cutting edge. From an external standpoint. One of the agencies we have is referred to as NIFA, which is the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. And that’s the group that really does have the granting power. They have upwards of $1.6 – $1.7 billion that they provide to universities primarily, but not exclusively, and mostly, I would say, in terms of our land grant institutions, the ones that have agriculture departments. And that granting really comes in two large buckets. One would be what’s referred to as capacity funding, which is really money that’s provided by Congress in order to ensure that these 50 land grants, as well as the 1890s land grants, the historically black colleges, have the funding that they need to have an agricultural college to conduct research, some extension funding as well as teaching. And then the other part of the NIFA model is to really have large areas of focus. That way, they provide through competitive grants. So what are the most contemporary and current topics we need to address and which of these organizations, whether they’re land grants or non land grants or others, even NGOs, have the best ideas on the best potential solutions for those challenges. The other two agencies I’ll mention as well would be the National [Agricultural] Statistics Service or NASS, which is part of this mission area. And they really are the ones who do the surveying and really measure everything agriculture and that information supports all of the USDA, certainly in a big way. But it also supports very directly our fourth agency, which is the Economic Research Service. And this is a group of folks that just do cutting edge economic research and analysis to support policymaking across the USDA in another form. And the other component of our mission area is the Office of the Chief Scientist, which really works across these four agencies and indeed across the department to make sure that there’s good coordination, that there’s focus. It ensures the scientific integrity aspects and so forth and so on. So that in a nutshell, the four agencies of REE and how they break out.

Tom Temin: And getting back to the blueprint itself. You mentioned that this particular one, and there’s been a series of them over the years, is different from the earlier ones and more concise. What’s that all about?

Scott Hutchins: Well, great question. So over time, you know, every group kind of looks at what’s the best way. How do we want to really provide the direction and steer the organization in that way? And so as we look back and the different approaches taken, one of the things that we talked about as a leadership team within the REE mission area is that we wanted to publish something that wasn’t really a compendium of everything we’re doing. We wanted to put it in the context of what the themes would be, that really everyone in the public and private sector would recognize how they fit. And could be able to understand how that goes forward. And the other thing is that we wanted to identify themes that were areas that every one of the science agencies could contribute to the way that I have just outlined it. So one of the first things we did, pulled over a year ago is as the leadership team ourselves we got together and we started to identify the areas that each of these agencies could have an impact, and the areas that would be most impactful in US agriculture. And we actually arrived in kind of a consensus way toward these themes and we decided lay it out in that manner so that people would understand that in this case, the USDA science blueprint, you could see that multiple agencies in multiple areas of focus were being brought to bear on these five key objectives.

Tom Temin:  And you mentioned the compendium that’s not in there. Is the compendium available, if someone wanted to see everything going on?

Scott Hutchins: Yes, in various ways. Certainly the best way, perhaps to see everything that’s going on, as you put it, is to go directly to the various agencies and their websites and identify the kinds of things that they have there. And there are plenty of contacts, and plenty of other resources that could be identified there. So we are a public agency, obviously, and everything we do is for the benefit of the public. And everything we do is is transparent and supporting what we believe to be the public need.

Tom Temin:  And overseeing all of this, what is your sense of the grand challenges in agriculture? Aside from the five priorities and the different activities, do you see anything as the essential challenge for agriculture over the next maybe 10, 20, 30, 50 years?

Scott Hutchins: Well, it’s a very timely question because the blueprint really lays out the capabilities that we have and the capabilities that we’re building and so forth. But the real question you’re posing is what are we gonna apply those capabilities to? And just recently, Secretary [Sonny] Purdue outlined what he referred to as the agriculture innovation agenda for the USDA. And what is that and how and how does that relate to the blueprint? Well the ag innovation agenda really is a very forward-looking set of goals, and his goals were that by 2050 and that the U.S. increase its production productivity by 40% and its – reduce its footprint by 50%. Now you could focus on one of those two goals alone and probably could see that’s not a big lift. But when you do them together, the up 40 and down 50, it’s really a significant and stretch goal, which is what we should be doing. USDA should be setting stretch goals. And that’s exactly what we are doing. And so that is really the grand challenge that is being put forth. And what are we doing to support that? What we’re doing is we’re going to be working as part of that overall team within this mission area to develop a U.S. agriculture innovation strategy, and notice I didn’t say a USDA innovation strategy. Our goal is really to work with the farmers and the ranchers and their organizations to identify where the big areas of technology, whether it’s genome design or whether it’s digital and automation, or artificial intelligence or whole systems [sic] … planning – how can those technologies ultimately solve your biggest challenges but also create big new opportunities? So aligning the capabilities that are outlined in the blueprint with the challenges and the strategy that will emerge from this ag innovation agenda is really, I think, going to be a fantastic way to ensure that public resources and private resources are focused to solve the biggest problems and create the biggest opportunities.

Tom Temin: Do you think the next Norman Borlaug is out there?

Scott Hutchins:  Well, Norman Borlaug is obviously, he is the the icon for agriculture productivity and really lays out for all of us the challenge on how people and groups can make an impact. And I had the distinct pleasure and honor of actually meeting and knowing Dr Borlaug in a previous role and so inspirational and so clear. But yet his message is so straightforward and that is, you know, we really have to bring to bear all the best science and all the best technology to solve these big opportunities. When I look at the young folks and interact with them and have a chance to interact with our professionals here at USDA and in the private sector, I have every confidence that we will continue the the great legacy that Dr Borlaug set for agriculture.

Tom Temin: Dr. Scott Hutchins is deputy undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics at the Agriculture Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Scott Hutchins: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

Tom Temin:  We’ll post this interview along with a link to the research agenda at Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone

Related Stories

    ‘Maximum telework’ starting for USDA employees this week, but offices remain open

    Read more

    HUD, USDA throwing a little spaghetti against the wall to see what big data projects stick

    Read more


Sign up for breaking news alerts