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Ramaswamy: ‘Wicked problems’ require innovation and action to combat

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Today, many thought leaders around the U.S. talk about the year 2050 as being a monumental moment for the global population, which will hit 9 billion by that date. 

“We talk about how something bad is going to happen in 2050,” says USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Sonny Ramaswamy. “I like to say it’s happening right now. Nutritional security is a problem today.”

Rather than using the term food security, Ramaswamy chooses to classify the epidemic as nutritional security because there are multiple facets to the issue, beyond simple lack of food. 

Nutrition stats

“Globally, we have 850 million people who will go to bed hungry tonight,” Ramaswamy explains. “According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, we have 16 million households that have been food insecure at some point in the last year. That’s about 50 million people in the United States who have been food insecure.”

Further, approximately 3 million households with children are “intensely food insecure,” Ramaswamy says. 

Food deserts are also prevalent across the U.S and many parts of rural America. 

“We can feed the entire world, yet we’ve got hunger problems,” he says. “Globally, 29,000 people will drop dead from lack of food. That puts this problem in perspective for us.”

At the same time, Ramaswamy points out that 2.3 billion people globally take medication for cholesterol, heart disease, Type II diabetes, hypertension and others. 

“Here in America, one out of five adults take those drugs to have some semblance of normalcy,” he says. “Globally tonight, we’ll have about 50,000 people drop dead from these chronic diseases.”

Ramaswamy emphasizes, “We have two book-ends of this situation – hunger resulting in death and excessive amounts of calories resulting in death.”

In America, 75 percent of America’s healthcare costs are attributable of chronic diseases and metabolic disorders. 

“If we look at what’s contributing to chronic diseases, about 10 percent is attributable to genetics, 10 percent is attributable to the level of activity and 80 percent is attributable to the amount of food we consume,” Ramaswamy says. 

Because calories don’t come from fruits, vegetables and nutrient-rich foods, health challenges result.

Problem solving

“This is what I call a ‘wicked problem,’” Ramaswamy describes. “We’ve got the technology and knowledge to be able to address it, but we cannot deploy that technology because we can’t agree on how to go about doing that.”

Other drivers, like climate change, food and fuel costs and globalization of trade are also contributing to the challenge. 

“We’re doing all of this in the context of an anti-intellectual, anti-science environment in a nation like America,” he says. “Western Europe is following suit, and the rest of the world is following behind them.”

Ramaswamy continues, “We’re blessed with the most incredible engines of discovery and knowledge generators, but we still have this environment in which we have to operate.” 

The engine behind the technology to solve many food issues rests in the hands of American producers. 

“Every one of us has to think of farmers and livestock producers as we think of innovation,” Ramaswamy says. 

The challenge

Today’s producers are under an onslaught of conditions, including policies, regulations, biological constraints and more that Ramaswamy says results in a situation where “our farmers and livestock producers are caught in a vice grip and being squeezed.”

“I don’t want young people thinking old folks are going to leave a mess in the next 30 years or so,” he says, “but I’m more optimistic than that.”

Transformative discoveries will be part of the answer he says, but notes it will be equally important to work collaboratively with policy makers to ease regulatory burdens. 

“I know we have demonstrably shown, globally, we can indeed take on these problems and these challenges and address them,” Ramaswamy emphasizes. “There is a path forward.”


NIFA, Ramaswamy’s organization, invests funding to catalyze research and education efforts to “convene the best brains and monetary resources to take on the challenges and come up with solutions, as well.”

“The innovation, discovery and new knowledge generated, if it is published in a journal or textbook, is not enough,” he says. “It is critically important that science is put to work. It must be put together for the end users.”

He cautioned, however, “We’ve got to think about the nexus that we have, but we’ve got to make sure what is being done is a sustainable approach so no one will be burdened with the unintended consequences of everything we do.”

Ramaswamy presented at the 2017 Ag BioSciences Innovation Summit, held in Indiana. Look for more information on specific transformative discoveries in future editions of the Roundup.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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