U.S. Department of Agriculture Official Calls for Research to Address Population Challenge

Published March 25, 2013

In a talk at UB’s Center for Fine Arts on March 6, 2013, Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), presented the range of problems facing the world as population growth strains food and water resources.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

...currently humans consume only 15-50 species out of the 50,000 potentially edible ones on the planet.

Titled “Setting the Table for a Hotter | Flatter | More Crowded Earth,” the lecture painted a stark picture of the crises that derive from population growth, expected to reach nine billion by the middle of this century: food and water shortages, environmental impacts, climate change, energy distribution and consumption, health concerns, and poverty. Dr. Ramaswamy, who was trained as an entomologist at Rutgers University and most recently served as dean of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Oregon Agricultural Experimentation Station before joining NIFA in 2012, shared a particularly vivid image to illustrate the urgent need for resource maximization. “With today’s technology,” he said, “we would need two more earths to sustain the future population.” He added that if the whole world consumed resources at the level of the United States, “we would need four earths.”

Dr. Ramaswamy emphasized that population-driven resource drainage already confronts us with huge challenges; in Klamath Basin, Oregon, wells that used to yield viable water at 100 feet now require 3,000 feet of drilling (and the water they yield includes mineral poisons, like arsenic). Likewise, formerly rich soil in India that provided the bulk of the country’s rice and grain is now so devoid of nutrients that nothing can be planted there. Moreover, rice—which has become a major world food staple—tends to be poor at absorbing Vitamin A, leading to blindness in some Asian populations who consume it heavily. Meanwhile, rice does absorb harmful elements like arsenic. In the face of these challenges, Dr. Ramasmawy outlined some specific research goals for scholars and scientists at the university level.

Among the areas he discussed as most urgent was farming. Improved technology and so-called “smart farming”—which involves the development of sensory-capable robots to increase efficiency in the planting and picking of crops—is one field for research to focus on. Others include advancing the state of the art in hydroponics, productivity, and diversifying the food spectrum from which humans sustain themselves. Dr. Ramaswamy noted, for instance, that currently humans consume only 15-50 species out of the 50,000 potentially edible ones on the planet. What kind of research, he asked, is required to uncover more diversified food sources?

Some of the answers to that question are already coming from researchers at the University at Buffalo. Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, has received a $3.96 million grant from the USDA to extend research she has conducted in Buffalo and Western New York to communities across the U.S. (click here for full story). Dr. Ramaswamy, noting this award, said that he expects future food research to come from across the disciplines, including the social as well as hard sciences.

The largest impediment to the needed breakthroughs in the United States is a lack of commitment to research funding as a percentage of the GDP. Dr. Ramaswamy displayed a global map that showed the U.S. lagging behind other countries in this area; Europe, Australia, and China have all surpassed the U.S. in their research and development funding levels. The U.S. currently funds research at a level of about 2.5% GDP, with food sustainability research even lower than that. Dr. Ramaswamy and NIFA scientists would like to see that level rise to 3%, in order to meet the severe challenges that face us.