More on Molly Jahn, New Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics at USDA

Posted on the COMFOOD Listserv: Last week , as some of you know, Molly Jahn, currently the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Wisconsin-Madison was appointed undersecretary of research, education and economics at the USDA.  For an official announcement see this URL:  What some may not realize is that Jahn is a real ally in the scientific community for agricultural research that is diverse. While she was at Cornell she initiated and oversaw a plant breeding program for vegetable varieties needed by the organic farming community.  The program had two versions:  the Public Seed Initiative and the Organic Seed Partnership.  If you want a detailed analysis of the project and its strengths and challenges you can access my dissertation which was a study of the project here:

The short version is this.  Jahn is a classically trained plant breeder.  If you like melons try Hannah’s Choice, a variety she developed and is named after her daughter.  Over the course of her career plant breeding has dramatically shifted to accommodate genomics and a variety of molecular methods.  Jahn’s labs have done that kind of basic research but she also has maintained a commitment to field-based plant breeding.

What is most important was the decision she took almost ten years ago to develop organic varieties and to do so using participatory plant breeding methods.  When I interviewed her in 2006 she explained how horrified she when she discovered that organic farmers were using 80-year-old varieties.  Unimproved heirlooms, which so many of us in the alternative foods movement consider treasures, looked to her like a gaping vulnerability.  It was as if she were a medical doctor who had stumbled across a group that treated TB by sending people to sit on the tops of mountains to absorb fresh air a la Thomas Mann.

She found some money and initiated contact with farmers groups and the small and medium-sized seed companies that serve them.  Together these groups, who had not had much experience working together, devised a project that allowed farmers to work with breeders to create the varieties that preserved the taste, growing habits and other characteristics organic farmers wanted together with the resistance to disease every farmer needs.  The project wasn’t perfect, for one thing it came to an end when the grant money ran out.  However, it proved that land-grant plant breeders and organic farmers and small seed companies could work together and produce what the sustainable agriculture movement desperately needs:  custom-crafted resistant varieties.

What does this all mean for her new role?  The good news is this:  Jahn understands the need for a diversified food system and what it will take on the research side to support all kinds of farmers.  She understands first hand that sustainable farming attracts a different kind of farmer and that researchers will need to change the way they do their work in order to serve these new constituencies.  At the same time, Jahn is not opposed to using the tools that molecular biology has given agricultural scientists.  I expect she will support GE work.

Most reassuringly, Jahn values both grassroots and social science assessments of research outcomes.  She understands that plant breeders, and by extension other natural science based disciplines, need to consult with non-scientists about the work they do and its larger social impact.  She is also possessed of a certain toughmindedness which she will need given some of the other USDA appointments.  Big ag. will get a fair hearing but they won’t be able to steamroll her.  I can’t wait to see what happens.

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