USDA prioritizing research into climate change, data infrastructure, nutritional equity

The Agriculture Department is, in many ways, mainly a research agency.

The Agriculture Department is, in many ways, mainly a research agency. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin next guest on this podcast, came up through the ranks to run Agricultural Research Service and its approximately 8,000 employees. Now she’s the USDA’s Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics, as well as its Chief Scientist. Chavonda Jacobs-Young also garnered the prestigious Presidential Rank Award late last year.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin So real quick, what’s it like to go up into the heady heights of appointee status after being a long term career federal employee?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Well, Tom, I’ve had 21 years of federal service in science administration joining the Department of Agriculture in 2002 as the GS 13 national program leader and just falling in love with science for agriculture. And it’s been interesting as my responsibilities have grown over the years and moving into the senior executive service to be willing to step into more and more levels of higher responsibility, as you said. It’s been an interesting climb over the past 22 years.

Tom Temin And does Tom Vilsack come to you when something goes wrong in his garden?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young He knows better than that. He goes to the experts and so I’m happy to connect him with the right people, with the solutions.

Tom Temin All right. Well stated. And you are the undersecretary for research, education and economics, and maybe review for us, what are the priorities now in agricultural research and how does education and economics tie into that?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young We’re really facing a huge challenge globally, not just in the United States, but how do we feed a growing population? We’re expecting that our population is going to be over 9 billion by 2050. That’s over a billion more mouths to feed. And we know that we want to be able to accomplish that, being great stewards of the environment. So we don’t want to increase land, we don’t want to increase labor. And so we really have to have science and innovation to meet our challenges around addressing our climate change via climate smart agriculture, forestry, clean energy. And we’re working very hard in the Department of Agriculture to advance racial justice, equity and opportunity and build rural prosperity. We’re trying to help our small and mid-sized farmers so all of our producers have more and better market opportunities so that they can be profitable in their farm production, whatever they decide to grow, wherever they decide to grow it. And we are tackling the important challenge of food and nutrition insecurity. So we’re very hard at work every day. Science undergirds each one of those priorities. And so that’s what our scientists are working on across the country and our economists are studying. And all of the important data that we provide to not just American agriculture, but global agriculture.

Tom Temin Sure. And I guess the most basic form of equity is making sure everybody’s fed properly. And you mentioned also that there are 9 billion people that are going to be on this earth. And I get the sense that for the Agriculture Department, there is the feeling that the research that is done, while it benefits U.S. farmers — I guess maybe this is where the economics comes in — there is a huge export element to this because in many ways there’s an obligation to help feed the world.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Well, it’s an obligation, in a sense. And it has been our history. The U.S. has been so productive in our agriculture. We’ve had tremendous success in growing productivity going back to the 1950s. We think about Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. And science has evolved a lot since then. We know more. We’re doing different things. We’re doing more. And so now, in addition to being productive, we want to also make opportunities for our producers to be profitable. We’re seeing some big challenges in the graying of rural America. So many of our producers are fast approaching 58, average age of 58, average age of 60. And we know that if we don’t create rural communities where people want to live and can thrive, that we’re going to be challenged in terms of meeting the growing demand for food, fuel, fiber that we have, not just here in the U.S. but around the world.

Tom Temin And when it comes to increasing productivity of farmland, which seems to shrink, I mean, you and I both live in the same suburban area of Washington, and I know there’s apartment complexes and farms full of townhouses that used to be farms full of crops, within our lifetimes. And so what are the big challenges for the next round of productivity? Is it DNA? Is it better fertilizers or I mean, what’s the grand challenge here in research?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Well, we’re actually showing how science and innovation can help us succeed at a time where we’ve had tremendous growth in agriculture. But we’ve also seen that it’s been because of science and innovation, as I said earlier, because we know that we have an increased amount of land, where we see that, you just talked about all the apartments that are in Montgomery County. Plants and animals we use in biotechnology, genetic and genomic technologies. We’ve been able to integrate big data, being able to use artificial intelligence and machine learning so that we can do more on the land that is in production. So we’re really working to address some of the challenges our farmers face with climate change. We talk about extreme drought, in some cases extreme floods, extreme heat, the ability to use water that has high saline content because we need alternatives. So we’re researching all of it.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young. She’s the Agriculture Department’s chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics. And I want to turn to you for a moment. You are a Presidential Rank Award winner in the most recent class. Tell us about that. What do they cite in this award? Because they don’t tell the public what people did.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Well, thank you for asking. I’m honored to have received the Presidential Rank Award, the distinguished one here in 2022. And in 2016, I was honored to have received the Meritorious Presidential Rank Award. And it has been built on my career in science for agriculture. And so as part of that award and the acknowledgment, just being able to share some of the things that I’ve done in terms of building up the scientific enterprise for USDA. For me, being in USDA for almost two decades and working in the area of science, being able to help stand up the office of the Chief Scientist for the USDA, the first time that we had an office of the chief Scientist to support the chief scientist, in which interestingly now I am the chief scientist. And so it was wonderful to be the first director of that office. Leading the department in integrating as far as scientific integrity policy in response to the White House’s work around increasing scientific integrity across the country. And we’re in a great position right now to really be responsive and help role model for others how to truly implement scientific integrity, training and policies into the department. Looking at some of our investments around scientific infrastructure is one of my highest priorities, and that is to modernize scientific infrastructure for agriculture and that includes our buildings and facilities and so across the country. [The Agriculture Research Service], at the time I was ARS administrator, we had some $6 billion worth of buildings, average age looking at 48, 50 year old buildings. And it only takes one walking around a land grant university campus and looking at the difference between the engineering buildings and the medical schools. And then there is our ARS facility right there in all of its 1964 glory. And so we’re really working very hard to secure funding for investing in our buildings. And we’ve been able to, since 2015, I’m leading the agency and securing over $1,000,000,000 to invest in those buildings and facilities to modernize so that they’re places where young people want to work and study and thrive and ultimately join us in agriculture. And high performance computing, having an opportunity to develop and establish the first scientific high performance computing network for ARS first and now for the USDA. And now we’ll partner with our land grant universities across the country. Really understanding that agriculture is high tech. And because it’s high tech, we have lots and lots of data and we need to be able to use that data in the optimal way. And that means being able to implement tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning, being able to share it, being able to use the cloud storage. And then really the third part of that, which is really important: Train a cadre of people who are able to help us with that. And so really put in a lot of funding in training and having fellows and post-docs so that we have the next generation of AI data scientists for agriculture secured. So those are just some of the examples of some work that I’ve done that I believe supported my selection for Distinguished Rank award. I will also talk about my work at the White House, really spending two years at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. And after leaving OSTP, really continue to help have some leadership with National Science and Technology Council committees and subcommittees. So just staying very active in the space of agricultural science.

Tom Temin And by the way, what is your particular specialty in agricultural science?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Well, that’s a great question, Tom. My Ph.D. is in a field now called Paper Science and Engineering. And so, yes, I know what you’re thinking: “What? Wait a second…” And so I am from a college of foresty resources and forestry is a part of USDA. Yes, indeed. So that’s how I entered the department is working with biofuels, forestry products and non-food products. And so that’s how I joined USDA in 2002.

Tom Temin Well, that’s interesting because people may not realize that paper does require science and engineering. And if you know the difference between tissue paper and corrugated, then you begin to see the variety and the amount of research that does go into paper and wood-based products. So good for you. And a final question on the ASCEND program. I know that’s something important to you. It has benefited you and you hope it benefits some others.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Right. So I am so excited about ASCEND. It is the Agricultural Science Center of Excellence for Nutrition and Diet for Better Health. And we are so excited to have been able to work with Secretary Vilsack to launch ASCEND late last year. And we’ve been working in response to the president’s cancer moonshot 2.0 and Ascend is all around being able to integrate three components: It’s doing nutrition research, it is collecting the best data around nutrition, and it’s engaging with the community. We believe that while there are very important roles for treating cancer and chronic disease, that USDA has an important role of helping to prevent some of the chronic diseases, especially the disparities we see in minority communities. And so it’s been one of the areas that I’m extremely passionate about. We’ve started this process by going out into the communities. Our first partnership was with Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, talking with a predominantly African-American community. And we want to hear about people’s lived experiences. Where do they get their trusted data? How do they use this data? Who do they trust? And then what can we be doing to do a better job to address the nutrition disparities in those communities? And then secondly, we were in Laredo, Texas, a community that’s 96% Hispanic, and just had an over pouring of just participation in both places. But hearing from people with lived experiences the things that we can do to make their lives better and really share with people that for us, I talk often about this in my community, in my own family. Many of my ancestors died in their fifties. And for me, that is simply unacceptable. And primarily from chronic conditions hypertension, diabetes, stroke, kidney diseases. So it’s a norm in my family, that three day trek to dialysis was not normal. And there are some things we can do. There are a lot of things that are outside of our control, but what we eat is not one of them.

Tom Temin A few years ago, I think it was Health and Human Services had a program to get hypertension information and prevention and treatment out to, in this case, it was the black community and one of their media for doing that was barbershops. And most ethnic groups have some kind of a center. In some communities, it’s the barber shop. It might be the social club in other communities. Any thought of using those types of community trusted local organizations to get that message out?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young That’s why we partnered with Southern University in their 1890 Center of Excellence. That’s why we partnered with Texas A&M International University. And Representative [Henry] Cuellar (D-Texas) joined us in Laredo, Texas, because those are trusted members of the community. And so we have partnered with those folks who are already on the ground because we know how important it is for people to trust the information that they are receiving and to trust us with their stories. One of the parts of these programs have been people going into a booth and sharing their story. You mentioned hypertension. Tom, I was diagnosed with hypertension. I think I was 19 or 20 years old.

Tom Temin That makes two of us.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young I was a track athlete. I think I was 120 lbs soaking wet, five-ten and a half.

Tom Temin What was your event?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young A high jumper. I was a high jumper at North Carolina State University. And it just to me, you know, the predisposition for hypertension was something that I never gave a second thought to. So when I was diagnosed, it was kind of like, wow, this is interesting. Yet, I think almost every woman in my family has hypertension, but we just didn’t talk about it. And what should I have been doing to maybe prevent the onset of it? And so now I’ve lived with it, a number of decades — we won’t say how many — and learning how to eat properly, how to take my medicines, knowing that diabetes in my family has led to subsequent situations that could have been prevented: loss of limbs, loss of life, kidney failure. There are all these things that there’s a sort of a rolling set of events that could potentially be prevented had we made some better choices about what we eat and how we move our bodies.

Tom Temin And at the same time, though, the medical knowledge of what is a good diet has been a moving target over the decades. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where it turns out bacon cheddar cheeseburgers are the best thing you can possibly have. But what was known wisdom in the seventies was very different in the nineties, very different now. So doesn’t this also have to be accompanied by some really good basic research and data-driven looks at the whole nutrition question?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young And this is what we call precision nutrition, which is at the core of ASCEND for better health. Being able to take lived experiences, data from many different communities and being able to be more precise in the guidance that we give. We use things like the BMI right now; we know that’s a standard that we have. Are there opportunities to improve upon that based on the different subpopulations that we serve? There are many opportunities for us to be more precise in how we provide guidance. We’re not a one size fits all.

Tom Temin And I guess people can go to the USDA site and get more information about all of this?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Absolutely. We encourage and invite people to follow us at USDA Science: @USDAScience. We would love to have their participation and have them share their stories if they’re so inclined.

Tom Temin And by the way, what is a good snack for people that want to keep their hypertension in but really love potato chips?

Chavonda Jacobs-Young Everything in moderation, Tom. But a diet high in healthy fruit and vegetables I think is a great place to start.

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