As a successful plant breeder who has produced vegetable varieties grown on six continents, Dr. Molly Jahn could in good conscience end her contributions to food and agriculture right there. Instead, she has chosen to dig deeper, shifting her focus from plant breeding to the agriculture system as a whole. “It isn’t just maximizing productivity of agriculture that’s going to save us,” she says, “it’s really ensuring that our agricultural systems—that our food systems—work properly. And that means work for the human beings’ livelihoods, as well as health, and work for the environment.”

Dr. Molly Jahn is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she holds appointments in the Department of Agronomy, the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, and the Global Health Institute. From 2006-2011 she served as dean of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. Additionally she served as Deputy and Acting Undersecretary of Research, Education and Economics at the USDA from 2009-2010. And that’s just the short list of Molly’s accomplishments.

Molly advocates for active attention to the state of our food system and its history. “I’d like to think that we’ve learned from the 20th century industrialization that there are grave perils in driving systems to be so efficient we lose all the resilience in them.” She says the “greatest threat of the 21st century” as us—humans.

Fortunately, there are also humans like Dr. Jahn. Right now she’s leading a global alliance of research groups focused on “making the consequences of our failures to change visible to us.” Systemic risks that originate from shortcomings in the food system are Molly’s forte. “Can we, together, find ways of existing that steward our resources adequately?” she wonders, intimating that “no” is not an acceptable answer.

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Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Dr. Molly Jahn

Air date: September 7, 2015

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. I’m so pleased today to introduce you to my friend Dr. Molly Jahn, professor of genetics in the Agronomy Department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Molly works in plant genetics and breeding and has contributed to crop varieties that are grown on six continents. She has worked in developing countries to link crop breeding with improved human nutrition and welfare. It is an honor to present Dr. Molly Jahn.  


TM: It is such a joy to have you today, Molly. Well, you know, you have been such a known force in the research world, as well as linking research and genetics and breeding with human health and the environment and nutrition. Every time I talk with you, you’re working on something that’s just so dynamic and so interesting. I have to ask you, what are you working on now?

MOLLY JAHN: Well, you mentioned one of my lifelong passions, and that’s plant breeding. So I launched off with a strong interest in biology. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and migrated to agriculture when I was doing my graduate work, and in particular migrated to plant breeding because I was so interested in the possibility of creating varieties that didn’t need pesticides, that would perform better in production environments that were healthier. And so I had the joy of a pretty long career in vegetable breeding, and a lot of varieties out there, I still run into them all the time in farmers’ markets and supermarkets all around the world, actually. And so that’s one really important thing I do.

But in the process of being a plant breeder, I have had a chance to look at agriculture a lot of different places on earth. And it was a trip—it was actually some students of mine went to West Africa, where we had a project in tomato breeding. And we had bred a disease-resistant tomato variety that had allowed the people in that part of the world to restore tomato production very suddenly—so suddenly that their markets hadn’t adapted to so many tomatoes. And it was when they sent me photographs of these beautiful women standing beside the street in Bamako, Mali, with piles of rotting tomatoes, that I thought, you know, from now on I’m going to work in systems. Because it isn’t just maximizing the productivity of agriculture that’s going to save us. It’s really ensuring that our agricultural systems, that our food systems, work properly. And that means work for the human beings, livelihoods as well as health, and work for the environment.

And so I did a little break and did sort of an experiment with my own career, and shifted gears and became dean of agriculture here at the University of Wisconsin, and had a marvelous run at a really important time when energy was coming into our agricultural landscapes. And at that point I got really interested in some really fundamental questions, like is biofuels a good thing or a bad thing?

TM: Yeah, I think for just a second, for our listeners, when you say “energy coming into our agricultural landscape,” you are talking about corn ethanol?

MJ: Well, I’m talking about sourcing energy from our agricultural fields. So it can be corn ethanol, but of course there are second-generation approaches that are of interest that may use so-called waste material. So I got really interested in some of the propositions that were being put forward about biofuels, including corn ethanol. And really, the question then became, how do these things add up, right?

And it turns out—this sounds really nerdy and geeky—but it turns out we don’t have good numbers for a lot of things that really matter. And so when it comes time to make decisions about which way we’re going to take our agriculture in the future, I have come to really have a very strong commitment to ensuring that we have good-quality information about what we’re doing now, what the energy balances are, what the water balances are, what the consequences for soil are, as we look now and into the future. And so today I have created a really amazing alliance of research organizations around the world that have advantages in, who have historical excellence in food, water, energy, and climate, each one realizing that that’s not enough.

So the energy laboratory I work with now is a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory that has for years had a focus on systems ecology. They’re building a very large climate model. It’s an energy laboratory—why would it need to look at food at a large scale? Well, of course it needs to look at food, because a huge part of how we use energy is to produce food, including biofuels. And so it’s been very exciting to take really big science and turn it to this challenge of adding up our use of the planet. So we need, what, a planet and a half to support our use now—and we’ve got billions more people coming.

TM: It is so hard to sometimes understand that the research that completely, one piece contradicts another. I had someone tell me, after reading one science piece that completely contradicted another one, said, “I give up. Science schmience!”

MJ: Well, that is the danger. That is the danger. So it was very interesting for me, when I started this new work, I had the opportunity to visit the 2009 Nobel laureate in economics, a scholar named Elinor Ostrom. And what Lin Ostrom studied was exactly what you just talked about: the fight, the fight human beings have over resources. And what she was especially interested in was resources we have to share.

And if you look at the earth under the lens of sustainability, every resource we have we’re going to have to learn how to share. There is no resource that isn’t affected by other dynamics elsewhere. And that is a really profound insight. She called them common pool resources, things we have to share. So if we have to share things, you know, just like children in the back seat, if you have two pieces of whatever it is they’re fighting over, it’s easy—two pieces, two kids, right? But if you don’t know how much you’ve got, you’ve got a squabble on your hands.

And so what these resource organizations are coming together to do is to generate better-quality information about how much clean water we have, and what technologies we can apply to ensure we’ve got more clean water; how we can farm to ensure our soil health is improving as we use it, as opposed to degrading. And these turn out to be incredibly important and difficult challenges for modern science. So that means they’re a frontier. And so it’s been very exciting for me in the last five years, since I left the deanship, to join hands with people from completely different disciplines, to start to ask ourselves, how can we do better to add up what we’ve got in the way of resources the human family will depend on, going forward? And of course, it isn’t just food—it’s water.

And it’s making for some very interesting friends. Perhaps the most uncomfortable and progressive part of our government to deal with, for some others, is our military establishment. It’s actually been some parts of the U.S. defense establishment that are the furthest along in realizing we just fought a war over oil, and when they think about the threats to U.S. prosperity and peace in the future, they think about water, they think about food, they think about energy. And so there are people in that community who’ve watched their brothers die, who are incredibly progressive about thinking about how to take care of these resources.

So I find now that more than ever, that I have to challenge my biases. I think we all have to challenge our biases about who our friends are and who the scary people are, because we are sometimes the scary people. And we also have incredible potential to do the right thing.


TM: So, you know, your alliance that you talked about, your research—who are these researchers who are getting together?

MJ: Well, of course, when you think about research, research is discovery. That’s been done a lot in universities. And so the first thing we did when we went to the Nobel laureate of economics was, she said, you’re doing the right thing. Focus on building what she called a community of practice. She said put together sets of researchers who can work together on this challenge of counting up clean water. She actually worked on fisheries, which is a great example of this problem. If you don’t know how many fish are in the sea, and you have multiple communities interested in that fish, you’ll overfish to the point where there’s no fish at all. And so what she studied was how it is that human beings control access to a resource like fisheries.

And so she gave me a number of lessons, one of which was, start a community of practice. And so we did. And that community of practice is called Knowledge Systems for Sustainability. And of course it is just what it says: it’s really about building our ability to know about the resources we need to manage for the long term. And that means we have to take into account how people are doing and how the planet is doing.

And so around that challenge, we’ve had a number of major research organizations join as well. And mainly these are government organizations because they have a size and staying power that academic organizations sometimes don’t. And so there are a number of these that—actually, it’s very interesting: three of the six were formed during the Cold War. One focused on nonproliferation; one focused on making sure there was enough to eat in parts of the world that might be influenced by Communism; and then the energy laboratory that I work with was founded to build the Manhattan Project. And so I think it’s incredibly moving and powerful to see these organizations that in the past were founded to, in some way to “protect” with a very twentieth-century idea of what that means, reaching now to understand the greatest threat in the twenty-first century is us

TM: Elizabeth Kolbert…

MJ: —and the damage we will do to our home, yeah.

And so these groups have understood, when they do these very fancy, gigantic, large-scale experiments with Facebook and all sorts of data, that the rise of extremism in certain parts of the world that are very poor correlates with poor-quality food and with not enough water. And so if we take better care of each other, we will see, I think, some dynamics reflected that matter in these communities, like defense.

TM: Are you having to find that you need new technology, or are you seeing already that we have the technology that we need—we just haven’t applied it?

MJ: Well, I think probably both answers are correct. I’m sure there are technologies we need, but we have certainly focused on looking for things that work already. We call this approach “bright spots.” There’s another, funnier name for this research method which is well established in public health, and it’s called positive deviance. We go and look for things that deviate in the right direction. And so when we’ve applied this approach—and right now we’re doing it still in relatively small-scale ways—we go and find the most amazing things.

For example, there is a movement in the middle part of this country, in North Dakota, a very stressed agricultural environment. There are large-scale ranchers who are doing these amazing polycultures. So because they live in an environment that is under a tremendous amount of stress—temperature stress, water stress, it’s remote—there’s one farmer who came up with this idea, which is not a radical idea. Many farmers understand this, that actually if he were to farm for the health of his soil, he might find that the health of everything else on his farm followed. And so he did. He thought about this—common sense, practical, good farmer. He farmed for the health of his soil. He was a conventional farmer.

And so one of his precepts was never, ever leave soil bare. Never ever leave soil bare. And I think that actually, in the future, we will come to regard seeing a naked field as like seeing somebody with no clothes on, right? Because—

TM: Well, that could be good or bad!

MJ: Right! He has come up with these really complicated and interesting ways of farming. And actually, as far as I can tell, the mainstream research community has not been quick to pick up and take him seriously—but his neighbors have. And so we’re very interested to have the opportunity to visit that community. And I will actually have the opportunity to go there in the fall.

And so I will say, I expect we have lots and lots of things we already know how to do, that if they were scaled up… And this man is making money today. It’s not like he’s doing this and losing money. He’s found that actually he makes as much money if not more than his neighbors do in a good year, and then in the drought of 2012 he actually made his county corn averages in a year when his neighbors were devastated. And as I understand it, his use of pesticides, fertilizers, and certain categories of pharmaceuticals for his livestock have dropped off pretty radically as well.


TM: And all based on caring for the soil—

MJ: Right!

TM: —which I am so excited to hear. I’m kind of just stopped a little bit in my tracks when you say, “and we are going to be able to make decisions and impact things much faster.” Can you say a little bit more about that?

MJ: Well, let’s go back to this farmer in North Dakota. What he can do when he’s moving through his season, he’s set up a farming system where he has a lot of choices. And so if it’s getting dry, he can move his animals from one place to another. He can harvest something or keep it as forage, right? So he’s found a lot of plants that he can grow together, and that gives him a set of choices to adapt quickly to the conditions within a season. So the traditional way of farming is you’re committed to a crop at the beginning of the season, and for better or worse, you hang with that crop through the season and you hope for high prices and good weather. What he’s discovered is a set… You know, he’s got potatoes, he’s got all sorts of things, he has a livestock operation. And so if he needs to feed a crop to his cattle, as opposed to harvest it and sell it, he can do that.

So I see these farming systems that are much more sort of nimble and adaptable, but all based on this simple premise of maximizing… He’s still focused on yield, but he’s diversified his operation. So over and over, I see that theme of diversity coming up. And I think that’s going to be a real theme in this century.

And so we actually, I have a junior colleague in my research group. We talk a lot about the power of selecting agricultural systems for performance. So if you think about it, corn: we picked one species out of tens of thousands of species in that corn field, primarily microbial, right? And we picked that species and we bred it like crazy for a hundred years. What if we were to tailor the species that we’re depending on to interact with each other? What if that farmer I’m telling you about in North Dakota didn’t just have to find species that fit? What if we had worked to make those systems really work together?

And as a plant breeder, I think we’ve got a lot of opportunity for finding things that work better together, and working in a very local way to create this agriculture which will be, I think, more productive, more diverse, and will restore the natural resources it depends on.

TM: That is so needed right now, this restoration of our resources, because I think you said a few things that really stood out for me, and that was, how are we not going to not fight over resources? How are we going to get out of what these problems that you actually called acute? And I think that we’re all being much more aware of them.

So am I correct, what I’m hearing is that your first audience are governments, the people who really can influence, create the influence to change?

MJ: Well, one audience is governments—that’s true. And we do work with a set of policy dialogues that governments participate in. Another giant milestone was in March, the announcement of something called the Global Risk Model, which was the first time ever that we could see risk distributed around the world. It’s just the beginning—the model has many, many imperfections and limitations. But it’s the first time we’ve been able to look and say, when we help people in a poor part of the world, are we reducing the risk they face every day or are we increasing it? Because many of our traditional development interventions actually increase the risks vulnerable people face every day rather than decrease it. We take away traditional ways of doing things, things that work, and sometimes bring our favorite cute idea that actually isn’t a bit appropriate for that particular place on earth.

And so this is a very powerful instrument for truth-telling, we think. And so we do work at very high levels, but actually when it’s time to learn how systems work, I know it’s going to be the smallest scales that are the most informative, because it’s at the smallest scales we really learn how human beings work with each other.


TM: Well, you know, I hear these words a lot from you just now about adaptability, flexibility, diversity, as being the way that we’re going to really change, and also change—that this is, your work is very focused on trying to make change. I’m a little bit confused about, not totally, but what you’re saying about smaller scales being the ones that there’s huge lessons that come through. But isn’t everyone talking about how do we scale up these things? And I always get a little bit nervous about this as soon as everyone starts saying, “Scale up, scale up!” Do we just need a lot more smaller-scaled things but more of them? So what is scaling up, do you think? What is the breadth or vision of scaling up? Because this is something that we have to have all over the world.

MJ: I’d like to think that we learned from the twentieth-century industrialization that there are grave perils in driving systems to be so efficient we lose all the resilience in them, right? So if we’ve got systems so focused on maximizing productivity, when conditions depart from ideal, those systems can fail, and fail dramatically. And so, more and more, I see a more sophisticated recognition that it’s resilience—we have a lot to learn about what that word means—but that resilience in some sense occurs, it can occur, at any scale. And really it’s about working in scale-neutral ways. And it’s about driving our insights from large scale down to smaller scale, and from very small-scale work up.

And so in my network we do both formally. We really are pushing insights from the global scale—we have a term for it: downscaling. We downscale climate models so that we can understand what the significance is for weather locally, right? Because people experience weather locally—they don’t experience global climate, right? And so it’s linking these different ways of viewing the same thing, and looking at how things add up, that’s really a new frontier for us in this century.

It’s a technical frontier because it’s hard—we don’t know how to do it. And that’s where a lot of the confusion comes for the public. When the public wants to know what “the answer” is, we just have to get better at scaling up and down.

But I think a lot about where, let’s say in the U.S., we’ve made very expensive changes quickly, because we’re going to have to make some very expensive changes at large scale quickly, and it does come when things become personal. So think about handicapped access, right? It was when the United States citizens had to look at a few handicapped children crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol—that image of children crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol because they could not get access to their Capitol as U.S. citizens—we made a change as the United States of America. And it was a very expensive change. Some might say it’s ridiculous to have every bathroom handicapped-accessible. But that image, which made it clear to all of us that those children are our children, and we want our children to have what they need as citizens, as human beings. So we made a change in this country.

And so a lot of our work is about revealing those linkages. We’re very interested in how change is made. In any of major stories I know where good things have happened at large scale—cigarettes, and none of these things are perfect—but where human beings have made a big change at scale, there’s been some transparency involved, where the consequences of our failure to act become visible to us. And so that’s what my collaborative is doing: we are making the consequences of our failures to change visible to us.

TM: What amazing and important work! I’m sure the listeners are thinking the same thing that I’m thinking, and that is, Molly, can this save the world? Or at least can we reverse a little bit of our greenhouse gases, our global warming, that we’re seeing are out of control? I believe in solutions, and I have to say, now that you’ve introduced me to the term, you might be my most favorite positive deviant, in that you’re the kind of change that, in the positive way that you go about trying to say yes, we have solutions. But what do you think? I think, can we make some of these changes that can reverse the rather downward slide we seem to be in?

MJ: Well, you know, we cannot bring an extinct species back. We’ve done damage as a species that cannot be reversed. There’s no question about that. And in fact, should human beings disappear, there still will be a world, and many parts of it might be kind of delighted.

But, so really, it’s a matter of can we save ourselves? And it’s more than just a physical, you know, can we rescue as many human beings as possible. I think it’s really aiming at can we together find ways of existing that steward our resources adequately, not only for our own uses but for everyone’s use, because we do understand now, we can make transparent—and my research group is dedicated to this—the consequences of failing to care for people in other parts of the world. And I think a number of us do feel that there is very much a future worth protecting out there. We have done damage and we are realistic about that damage, but I also see possibilities with respect to the way human beings are acting and working that I’ve never seen before.

TM: I want to thank you so much for being the change agent that you are. Every time I see you, I walk away going, “Now, when I grow up I want to be like Molly.” But also encouraging all of us to keep going as being change agents, because it’s not hopeless. We need to do this. So thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing, and thank you for being here with us today.

MJ: And back at you, Theresa!

TM: You bet. Thank you so much for joining us today. You can find all the Rootstock Radio episodes, plus more information about Molly Jahn and other guests, links, and transcripts, on our website, Have a great day!

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