Susan E. Offutt was most recently senior consultant to the Global Strategy to Improve Agricultural and Rural Statistics at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Until her retirement from Federal service, she was chief economist at the US Government Accountability Office for eight years. Before joining GAO, she served as administrator of the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service for ten years. Prior to that tour, she was executive director of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Agriculture, which conducts studies on a range of topics in agricultural science. She was chief of the Agriculture Branch at the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the US President. During her tenure at OMB, she coordinated budget and policy analysis of the farm bill and trade negotiations in addition to the operations of USDA. She began her career on the faculty at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she taught econometrics and public policy. She is a fellow of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association and the National Academy of Public Administration and was awarded the Presidential Rank Award for both Meritorious and Distinguished Executive. She received an M.S. and Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell University.
What motivated you to work on the sustainable use of natural resources and addressing Climate Change?
The food and agricultural system has been my main interest since my studies as a graduate student at Cornell in early 1980s. I was motivated by the global food and hunger crises of the 1970s to understand how the system feeds people. Resources and the environment are part of that “coupled human-natural system,” a term from a recent study on global change research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development points out, agriculture contributes a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions, 17 percent through agricultural activities and another 7-14 percent through land use changes. So, consideration of sustainability comes as one facet of the study of the food system whose purpose is to feed people and, in many places, to provide a livelihood.
How would you describe the government's role in the sustainable use of natural resources and addressing climate change?
As agricultural economist, my perspective on government centers on its role in promoting efficient and equitable outcomes in the food system. The market doesn’t always yield the results society seeks, so the government can play a role in promoting progress. For more than a century, public agencies and universities have led in the application of science aimed at producing better outcomes in farm productivity and food security. That underfunded work needs to continue, incorporating the imperative to minimize the disruption the food system imposes on the environment and specifically on processes that drive global warming. The government can also provide incentives to farmers, food processors and distributers, and consumers to support that imperative. Subsidies, taxes, and regulation are tools that can be devised to achieve those ends. For political reasons, farmers are most often paid to avoid harm to the environment, and the promotion of carbon markets reflects the bias toward generating revenue for the farm sector in the name of “climate-smart” agriculture. Carbon taxes could have a system-wide impact on the food system, which, from farm to table, accounts for five percent of GDP. The regressive effects of such a tax on low-income households could be mitigated by rebates. Regulation, such as that in place to ensure food safety, is another possibility.
What, according to you, is(are) the biggest challenge(s) when it comes to the sustainable use of natural resources and addressing climate change? What could be the solution(s)?
The food system is complicated and global in scale. That recent National Academies reports notes that the largest risks from climate change will likely come from the interaction of multiple systems, such as the food-energy-water nexus. It follows that designing effective interventions to mitigate and adapt to climate change depends on understanding the linkages and inter-relationships in coupled human-natural systems. The Federal government has been a leader in generating relevant knowledge, and its reinvigorated commitment to that effort is clearly necessary. In this respect, the Academies note the importance of integrating findings from both the natural and social sciences. Here, a significant reduction in the Federal government’s ability to analyze the food system came with the decimation of economic research capacity at the Department of Agriculture, and that resource should be regenerated.
What are some projects or recent developments in this field that you are most excited about?
The complexity of human-natural systems can be represented in mathematical models. Increasingly, modelers combine depictions of natural processes with key socio-economic relationships that inform understanding of the human impacts and feedbacks in these complicated settings. Such models can be applied to geographical regions below global scale and used in simulations of the effects of alternative policy interventions to promote adaptation and mitigation. With respect to mitigation, researchers at Federal agencies and land grant universities have been studying the possibilities for reducing agriculture’s emissions of greenhouse gases for some time. Changes in tillage practices and in animal feeding strategies are but two of the promising avenues for reducing emissions while maintaining productivity.