Q&A with UCS Food and Environment Director Ricardo Salvador

Ask a Scientist - June 2012

This month, Senior Staff Writer Seth Shulman sat down for a Q & A session with Ricardo Salvador, the new director and senior scientist of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

SS: Welcome, Ricardo. How are you finding things at UCS so far?

RS: I have only been here seven weeks and already it feels like home. In a way, 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 this. 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.

SS: According to your CV, you are an agronomist and an expert on corn physiology. How did that come about?

RS: Well, I grew up in southern Mexico. Corn is such a fixture there, because of its centrality from a dietary, historical, and cultural perspective that, when I went to graduate school, it was the single crop I was interested in studying. 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. And 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. For somebody who is thirsty for knowledge, particularly systemic knowledge, our public universities are just treasure troves. So, in addition to learning stuff I wasn’t expecting, such as the Krebs cycle and calculus, I was also able to pursue my broader interests in sociology, history, and philosophy as well.

SS: It sounds like your interest in food-related issues dated from well before graduate school.

RS: Oh, yes. This interest began was I was very young. I had an unusual upbringing in that I was raised in the middle of lots of different worlds. My mom is a German-American woman who initially went to Mexico as a missionary. My father is Native American, a 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. In my family we spoke three active languages English, Spanish, Zapotec. 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.

SS: What can you say about your vision for the UCS Food and Environment Program?

RS: 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. Up until now, though, we have often played pretty much of an “inside game” seeking legislative and policy changes. And, as our colleagues working on issues of climate change could tell us, politics can often trump science in this kind of work.

So, one of the things I want to do is make sure we are connecting agricultural issues to people’s lives—to issues of social justice, the environment, the economy, and especially to issues of health. The best way we can be effective and do more to contribute to positive social change is to make sure we have more than just an inside game when it comes to agriculture and food systems. For example, I hope we can increase public awareness about the huge public health care costs associated with diseases like hypertension and diabetes. These thoroughly preventable diseases are the result of a default food system that exists only because it is successful as a business proposition for some large agribusiness firms but remains deaf to its effects on our public health. 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.

SS: Which sounds like it suits you because I understand you’re a serious long-distance runner, right?

RS: I’ve loved running since I was 12 and my goal is to always be in marathon shape, so if you told me there was a marathon this Saturday, I’d be able to go run it with you. I love it. I run 5 days per week and somewhere between 2 and 6 marathons a year. You know, last year, at mile 21 of the North Country Trail Marathon in Michigan, I fell and cracked my left clavicle. Three months later, I was back running a marathon in Arkansas. So, yeah, I guess you could say I’m a pretty dedicated runner. Now, since moving to Washington D.C., I’ve been enjoying Rock Creek Park: it’s a runner’s paradise with beautiful trails and babbling brooks. You startle deer; you hear the birds tweeting. I go crazy there every morning. I’ve run as many as 16 miles before work and come in energized, happy, buzzing, and ready for action.

Before joining UCS as the senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program, Ricardo Salvador served as a program officer for Food, Health, and Wellbeing with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Dr. Salvador earned his undergraduate degree 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.


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