As the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ricardo Salvador works with citizens, scientists, economists, and politicians to transition our current food system into one that grows healthy foods while employing sustainable and socially equitable practices.
Before coming to UCS, Dr. Salvador served as a program officer for food, health, and well-being with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In this capacity, he was responsible for conceptualizing and managing the Foundation’s food systems programming. He partnered with colleagues to create programs that addressed the connections between food and health, environment, economic development, sovereignty, and social justice.
Prior to that, he was an associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. While at ISU, Dr. Salvador taught the first course in sustainable agriculture at a land-grant university, and his graduate students conducted some of the original academic research on community-supported agriculture. He also worked with students to establish ISU's student-operated organic farm, and with other faculty to develop the nation’s first sustainable agriculture graduate program in 2000; Dr. Salvador served as the program’s first chair. Dr. Salvador also worked as an extension agent with Texas A&M University.
Dr. Salvador has appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show and has been quoted in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Politico and many other outlets. Dr. Salvador was named a 2013 NBC Latino Innovator and received the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2014. He was also an author of a 2014 op-ed in The Washington Post calling for a national food policy, which is changing how many think about food and farm policy.
Dr. Salvador earned a B.S. in agricultural science from New Mexico State University. He holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in crop production and physiology from Iowa State University.
Interview with Ricardo Salvador
I feel like everything I have done in my life—from my work in academia to my more recent work in philanthropy at the Kellogg Foundation—has prepared me to be a part of an organization like the Union of Concerned Scientists. It might sound grandiose, but I see my work as addressing crucial issues about humanity’s fate on the planet and confronting these issues to try to build a food system that is equitable. I am very excited to work at an organization that is clear about having a mission like that.
My interest in an equitable food system began at an early age. I grew up in southern Mexico where corn is central to life from a dietary, historical, and cultural perspective. My interest in corn played a big part in my decision to go to Iowa State University and that proved to be the very best place I could possibly have gone for my graduate work. I love the field of agronomy. I got so deep into my understanding of corn that I could practically tell you what it feels like to be a corn plant.
My mom is a German-American woman who initially went to Mexico as a missionary. My father is Native American, a Zapotec. In my family we spoke three active languages English, Spanish, Zapotec. In Mexico, perhaps even more than in the United States, Native American populations are the poorest of the poor and marginalized to the present. On my dad’s side, his family members were self-provisioning farmers who were very poor. On my mom’s side, some of my relatives were very successful farmers in California’s Central coast. I literally had people on one side of my family who would hire people like those on the other side of my family to be their workers. And I saw that folks on my dad’s side were hardworking, very ambitious, and very smart—some of the smartest people I know—but just didn’t have opportunity. So, right away I saw that there were structural issues there and I was almost forced into an abiding concern for what is fair and what is right. And from the start, food and the environment were the ways all these issues connected to one another for me.
At UCS, we have a tremendous team of really knowledgeable and passionate people and, in “Healthy Food and Healthy Farms,” we’ve got a great campaign that confronts a number of key themes about the sustainability of this planet’s living systems. Our core strength, of course, is our ability to come up with crisp and actionable policy recommendations based on our scientific analysis. I want to make sure we take full advantage of these strengths to connect agricultural issues to people’s lives—to issues of social justice, the environment, the economy, and especially to issues of health. For example, I hope we can increase public awareness about the huge public health care costs associated with diseases like hypertension and diabetes. I want to help make those connections to get the public to a place where they say: ‘our food system needs reform.’ Because our food system depends on public investment, it should not be just about greasing the tracks for private agribusiness, but about healthy food and a healthy environment for all of us.
There’s plenty of work to do but, despite the urgency, it is not a sprint but a longer-term strategy—which suits me fine because I’m a marathoner. I run 5 days per week and somewhere between 2 and 6 marathons a year. I’ve run as many as 16 miles before work and come in energized, happy, buzzing, and ready for action.”