USDA or the United States Department of Agriculture is the second largest federal department after Defense. Yesterday (4 May 2011) we had a number of interactions with people working on different aspects. It began with Jeannie Harvey of the Foreign Agricultural Services (FAS) introducing us to various possible research collaborations. There was discuss about 'Feed the Future' a theme which has been coming back in all interactions for which work is already underway for Bangladesh and Nepal (from where we have two of our participants). India also seems to be a part of the scheme indirectly as it wants to provide logistics support in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The day's second meeting was with Dan Lawson of the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) which is one of the departments with field level officers who interact closely with farmers in providing research and extension, but not on a top down basis - it is the farmer who has to finally decide what is good for him/her after the informtion is provided. However, their experience from the field is that individual farmers want to conserve the same for future generations. The farmers have strong self regulatory norms that would prempt others to impose norms that can be costly for farmers down the line. Time lag and personnel shortage are some of the difficulties that might delay work in some cases. But, a very good initiative that takes farer as the base - there are lessons for other countries.
Next, we had a meeting with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) formerly known as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). Ann Lichens-Park mentioned the relevance of Education (Moral Act passed about 150 years ago), Research (Hatch Act) and Extension (Smith-Lever Act) to make scientific-advances in agriculture to be locally grounded. Their work is organized into five focal areas - global food security and hunger, climate change, sustainable energy, childhood obesety and food safety. And they fund other university and researchers to take up work either independently or collaboratively (see the Coordinated Agricultural Projects that brings in multiple disciplines).
Her colleague R Hedberg who is involved with the sustainability issues under their Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) where even farmers can put up proposals to test some gut feeling. He mentioned about a success story when the farmer came up with some seed variety that has been having a lot of demand from other neighborhood farmers. The focus of sustainablity under this are for human needs, economic, environment and social concerns. Again the two presentation did through of lessons for other countries, that is, research should be grounded with local concerns and based on the principle that the farmer has to decide.
Dane Williams from the Office of the Agreements and Scientific Affairs (OASA) informed us about agricultural trade, the World Trade Organization and the concerns of the United States in havin access to markets. These concerns differ from those of some other countries and how the Doha round has been going on for a long long time.
In the final meeting we again interacted with five people from the FAS whose work was on technology and trade. An implicit view that could be sensed is that exporting technology developed in the developed countries would solve the problem of global hunger and food security. One wishes that it was that simple.
Later in the day we went the to the Smithsonial National Meuseum of Natural History. The best part was the live butterfly park. The displays were wonderful and intersperced with various modes of presentation were very educative. One could spend one full day in the museum and there are many other museums, on American History, on Science, on African culture and on American Indian population among many others. Later in the evening visited the farmer's market at Foggey-Bottom and then went to meet a friend at the Center for Global Development. Came back late in the night. It was a long day.