Catalyst Spring 2013


A New Direction in Food and Agriculture

Ricardo Salvador joined UCS last year as director of our Food and Environment Program. He received a Ph.D. in crop production and physiology from Iowa State University in 1988, after which he conducted some of the initial academic research on “community–supported agriculture” (in which consumers buy shares of their local farmers’ harvests). He also served as program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, helping to create programs that address the connections between food and health, environment, economic development, and social justice.

Ricardo recently spoke with Senior Staff Writer Seth Shulman and Editor Heather Tuttle about his vision for the future of agriculture.

What sparked your interest in the physiology of corn?

I grew up in southern Mexico. Corn is central to our diets, history, and culture there, so when I went to graduate school it was the single crop I was interested in studying. I got so deep into my understanding of corn that I could practically tell you what it feels like to be a corn plant.

Did these studies spark your interest in food-related issues?

Actually, my interest began when I was very young. My mom, a German–American, had relatives who were very successful farmers in California. My father is Native American, a Zapotec, and his relatives are self–provisioning farmers who are very poor. I saw that my dad’s folks were hardworking, ambitious, and very smart, but just didn’t have opportunity. These structural issues fueled an abiding concern in me for what is fair and right. And from the start, food and the environment were the ways all these issues connected to one another for me.

How do you envision UCS addressing these issues?

It might sound grandiose, but I see building an equitable food system as a way to address crucial issues about humanity’s fate on the planet. I am very excited to work at an organization that is clear about having a mission like that—I feel like everything I have done in my life, from my work in academia to my more recent work in philanthropy, has prepared me to be a part of this organization.

One of the things I want to do is make sure we are connecting agricultural issues to people’s lives. For example, there are huge public health care costs associated with diseases like hypertension and diabetes. These largely preventable diseases are primarily the result of a food system that benefits some large companies but remains deaf to its effects on our health. Because our food system depends on public investment, it should be about healthy environment, healthy food, and well–being for all of us, not just agribusiness.

U.S. farm policy seems to have created more problems for sustainable agriculture than it has solved. What do you see as the priority for improvement?

We will be focusing on reversing policies that incentivize too much production of the wrong stuff (grain and meat) and not enough production of the right stuff (fruits and vegetables). These encompass direct government payments as well as insurance programs and access to credit. There’s plenty of work to do but, despite the urgency, we see this not as a sprint but a long-distance race.

Which suits you because you’re a marathoner?

I’ve loved running since I was 12 and my goal is to always be in marathon shape. I run five days per week—as many as 16 miles before work—and come in energized, happy, and ready for action.