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Government, Politics & Issues

Obama taps Beachy of Danforth Plant Science Center to lead new Food and Agriculture Institute

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - President Barack Obama has asked St. Louisan Roger N. Beachy to lead a new agency that will fundamentally change the way the nation approaches agricultural research.   

On Oct. 5, Beachy will become the first director of the National institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). He comes to the fledgling agency with billions of dollars in play and millions of lives at stake as American farmers struggle to maintain their pre-eminent role in feeding the world.  

Beachy drew Obama’s attention in large measure because of his work as the founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a not-for-profit research institute at Warson Road and Olive Boulevard in west St. Louis County. Under Beachy’s leadership, the center, just having passed its 10th anniversary, has attracted more than $75 million in research grants, established an endowment of $100 million and conducted ground-breaking research in a variety of areas, including the development of biofuels and plants that can grow in dry climates.   

The appointment came as no surprise to many at the center. Dr. William H. Danforth, the center’s chairman, headed the task force that helped to establish NIFA. In 2004, the task force recommended that Congress create the agency as a way to make agricultural research as strong and vibrant as that being done in the fields of medicine and basic science. U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo, played a key role in passage of the enabling legislation last year. 

Within months of Obama’s inauguration, Rajiv Shah, an undersecretary for agriculture, met with Beachy to learn more about the Danforth Center’s work and to discuss plans for jump starting NIFA.

THE TOTAL PACKAGE

Danforth said Shah could not have found a better appointee. “Roger is the total package,” Danforth said. “He is a world-class scientist. At the same time, he understands production agriculture, having grown up on a farm in his youth. He knows about food supplies in countries around the world and he’s a great leader.”  

That sentiment was echoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. "Over the past 10 years, Dr. Roger N. Beachy has transformed the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center into one of the world's premiere research institutions and one of the major pillars of Missouri's life-sciences industry," said the governor. "Dr. Beachy is a man of true vision, firm determination and great intellect, and I am confident he will serve our nation well. I am tremendously proud that President Obama has selected a leader from Missouri's scientific community to lead this important new agency, and I wish Dr. Beachy all the best."

According to the formal agreement, Beachy will be “on loan to NIFA” from the science center. The center already has a succession plan in place. Philip Needleman, a member of the center’s Board of Trustees, will serve as interim president while a search committee led by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos conducts an international search for a replacement.

Beachy will keep his home in Clayton and continue to oversee some research efforts at the Danforth Center. He will assume the role of vice chairman of the center’s board of trustees, a position he was originally scheduled to assume next year.

Beachy said he plans to rent an apartment in Washington and take with him the lessons he learned in St. Louis about how to collaborate effectively with people at a variety of institutions. The Danforth Center has forged partnerships with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto Co., Purdue University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Missouri at Columbia, and Washington University in St. Louis.

“What I learned from the last 10 years here is the way to develop the most creative and innovative science is to engage people from a variety of backgrounds,” Beachy said in a telephone interview Wednesday evening. “We are all in this together. We need to rely on each other for good interaction and success.” 

When asked whether he could pull this off in Washington’s more contentious environment, Beachy acknowledged it would be a challenge: “St. Louis is a science-friendly town. We have good, honest debates. And there are some communities that are not so open-minded.” But he said Obama had set the proper tone by appointing eminent scientists to important positions. “This administration has elevated science to a whole new level,” he said.

A BROKEN SYSTEM

Danforth, also speaking by telephone Wednesday, said Beachy’s mission would be to change the way the government approaches agricultural research. It’s a system that many believe is broken.  

For example, Danforth said, “After the stimulus package was passed the National Institutes of Health got $10 billion in funding and the National Science Foundation (NSF) got $3 billion.  The Agriculture Department (USDA) got zip. The arguments were that the money wouldn’t be spent well. It would go out in pork.” 

Under the plan developed by Danforth’s task force, NIFA’s approach would be modeled more along the lines of NIH and NSF.  

Close to 90 percent of the money those agencies distribute are awarded on a competitive basis through a peer-review process. Danforth’s task force found that just 8.5 percent of USDA research dollars were awarded in that way.  

Danforth said he couldn’t be entirely critical of the way the USDA has gone about its business. After all, the U.S. took a leading role in the so-called Green Revolution with farmers growing crops in such abundance that they kept up with the burgeoning world population for the latter half of the 20th century. There were, in fact, surpluses. 

But a lot has changed in recent years. “Considered as a whole, agriculture, as currently practiced, is not sustainable,” the Danforth task force wrote in its report to Congress. 

In the interview, Danforth pointed to recent food riots in Asia and the Middle East as a signs of an incipient worldwide crisis that could destabilize dozens of countries. Of course, in some regions, particularly the African continent, hunger has continued unabated. “Sixteen thousand kids die every day of malnutrition-related diseases,” Danforth said. 

Vital U.S. interests are at stake as well, Danforth said. Under Beachy, NIFA will likely oversee research to: 

  • Develop new and useful products from plants and animals
  • Improve food safety by protecting plants from insects, diseases and bioterrorism
  • Develop biofuels
  • Strengthen national security by improving the lot of subsistence farmers in developing nations
  • Combat obesity

Beachy sees breakthroughs ahead. “There are two things that we’re going to get better at. We’re five to seven years away from a successful second generation of biofuels. This will come from biomass crops that use less fertilizer and water. An even bigger issue is the use of food and nutrition and how we can reduce the growth of obesity in children and adults.” 
Taking an even broader view, Beachy said he hopes NIFA will reinvigorate an interest in science among the nation’s youth. “We want to transmit the excitement of research science to young people in 4H groups and science clubs,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be exciting to see a child learn how to make a new carbon filaments starting with plants as raw materials that would someday be used in building new automobiles and airplanes?  Those things may be possible in the future.”

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