USDA deputy undersecretary discusses climate change, other ag issues
By Paul Hollis
The climate is changing, but farmers are not to blame, the chief scientist of the USDA said recently during a presentation to a group of students and faculty at Auburn University.
“There are a lot of reasons for climate change, and there are a lot of things we need to do to prepare for it,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Scott Hutchins, an Auburn alumnus and the Fall 2019 Auburn University College of Agriculture E.T. York Lecturer.
Hutchins, who officially assumed the position as deputy undersecretary of the Agriculture Department’s Research, Education and Economics mission area in January, spoke on Thursday, Sept. 26, at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. He oversees the Agricultural Research Service, Economic Research Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Agricultural climate adaptation was one of five overarching themes Hutchins said will define the next era of U.S. agriculture.
“I think we can do some mitigation, but most importantly, on behalf of our species, we need to adapt to it,” he said. “We need to make sure that our agricultural systems—our capabilities and our productivity—are not unduly affected by it. There are a number of ways we can focus on that, including plant breeding, land conservation and irrigation.”
But the notion that farmers are to blame for climate change should not be tolerated, Hutchins said. “Some groups are quick to do that, but farmers are adapting to it in terms of how their operations work, and there is a tremendous opportunity to make more progress.
“We’re beginning to understand the particular impacts of climate variability, and I’m absolutely convinced that the industry’s ability to breed with advanced techniques as well as traditional techniques will allow us to stay ahead of that curve and allow us to adapt in different areas.”
Another theme discussed by Hutchins is sustainable agricultural intensification.
“There are no doubts by anyone that we have big challenges ahead in terms of feeding the world,” he said. “I personally don’t worry about these big goals—we definitely have the capacity and capability to feed the world. What I do worry about is if we will do it in a way that will diminish our expanding capacity. That’s the biggest challenge—can we feed the world in a way that’s truly sustainable?”
People can’t lose sight, Hutchins said, of the fact that in the United States, agriculture is a business, and those involved need to have an enterprise that’s successful.
“We need to be able to talk about these best practices and other things, but we have to do it in a context where farm businesses can understand how to make it into a sustainable approach.”
Every farmer and every farming operation is going to have a different formula on how they protect their soil or grow their soil health,” he said.
“Some will be able to do it by intercropping and others in different ways,” Hutchins said. “The unique thing about this industry is that every cow is an experimental unit, and every acre is an experimental unit, so growers and ranchers can do their own experimentation in terms of what is working for their farms. They literally—pardon the pun—don’t have to bet the farm on any particular tactic—they can find the ones that work for them.”
A third theme is food and nutrition translation, Hutchins said.
“I find it exciting that we now have the opportunity to change the game,” he said. “We partner with the Food and Nutrition Service every five years to co-sponsor the update of the dietary guidelines. Unfortunately, that’s become somewhat of a political rather than a science process only.
“Nonetheless, what I see on the horizon is our ability to work with genomics and to understand disease end-points. The ability to have precision nutrition in a healthy way is not that far away.”
Value-added innovation is a fourth theme and one in which the USDA is obligated to help producers and consumers, Hutchins said.
“We have a very active office of technology transfer,” he said. “On average, it takes about nine years from the time research is published until the time that it is picked up by any kind of patent. That’s a long gestation time for information. Can we improve that and bring it to the ranch or farm?”
The fifth theme Hutchins discussed is global agricultural science policy leadership.
“It gets down to the United States taking a positive, proactive and leadership role in helping shape science policy around the world,” he said. “The policy and rules and regulations should be based on credible, repeatable and peer-reviewed science. While that seems very straight-forward to those of us in this field, it’s not always the case around the world, and it has a huge impact on innovation.”
Innovation will suffocate if it’s not provided space to explore and succeed, Hutchins said. There are groups—fundamentally based in Europe—that follow the “precautionary principle,” he said.
“It sounds good, but it’s a political principle and not a scientific principle,” Hutchins said. “It forces scientists to prove a negative, and you can’t prove a negative. That’s why we advocate for risk-based assessment.”
For the students in attendance, Hutchins offered several recommendations that “define successful scientists.”
“You need to have a passion for learning—not just cursory learning but deep learning,” he said.
“Never stop being curious and never stop seeking new knowledge. But if you don’t have the passion, nothing else will matter.”
Recalling his own mentors at Auburn University, Hutchins advised students to study the literature in their chosen fields and to seek out experts and mentors.
“Be productive and outwork your peers, and write something every day,” he said. “Start writing and thinking—and texting doesn’t count. Use unique skills and make unique contributions. Also, be obsessed with progress. Have a bias for action and never be satisfied with the status quo.”
Lastly, Hutchins said, be a professional and give back to your profession. “Have a life with no regrets and never look back.”
The E.T. York Distinguished Lecturer Series was established in Auburn’s College of Agriculture in 1981 through a gift from the late E.T. York and wife Vam Cardwell York, both Auburn University alumni and native Alabamians. For more information, visit the website at www.agriculture.auburn.edu/yorklecture.
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