Interview with Dr. Catherine Woteki: Fighting Against Hunger with Innovation and Collaboration

White House Science and Technology Advisor Says Chemistry “Fundamental to Solving Global Food Security Crises”
Photograph of Dr. Catherine Woteki
Dr. Catherine Woteki, White House Science and Technology Advisor

690 million people suffer from hunger according to the United Nations. This number may climb by an additional 130 million by 2030 due to the effects of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and international conflict. Addressing these challenges is not simply about increasing food production - it will require collaboration between nations and across scientific disciplines.

But how do we support this cooperation, and what is the role of chemistry and engineering?

There is perhaps no one better to discuss these questions than Dr. Cathie Woteki. She is a member of President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and served as Chief Scientist and Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics at USDA from 2010 to 2016. Throughout her career, she has advocated for building platforms to enhance domestic and international food and agricultural research.

Dr. Woteki will be presenting at the “Zero Hunger Summit,” organized by the American Chemical Society. This free online conference, taking place December 5-8 (11 AM -1 PM EST),  will explore how chemistry and engineering can contribute to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of “Zero Hunger.” Register for the Zero Hunger Summit.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

You have worked in government for most of the past 40 years, primarily focused on food, nutrition, and agriculture. Can you give an example of the issues or crises that you were involved in responding to?

For four years during the Clinton administration, I was the undersecretary for food safety. We had some very high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness that were related to meat and poultry. And those recalls led to some very large reforms in the way that meat and poultry are inspected in this country.

Nationwide we introduced an approach called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) that came from NASA. It was a system they had in place for quality assurance in the space program. Foodborne pathogens on meat and poultry products and the number of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. decreased as a result of that new system.

So that was one crisis: from beginning to finding a scientific approach towards regulation. That theme that ran through that whole four years that I was in that role.

How do previous crises compare to the ones that are going on now?

Everything that we're facing is just as complex as the things that I that I mentioned already and made all the more difficult because of the political environment that we're in globally.

I really do believe that for reaching the goal of zero hunger, we need - from a research perspective - to be sharing information, and to be working collaboratively. Not only to develop resilient crops and livestock, but also to prevent foodborne illnesses and other downsides that are that are associated with food and food production systems.

I'm a big believer in global scientific cooperation, and I think it's being made more difficult because of the political environment now.

There are many areas of research that are relevant to world hunger, ranging from economics to environmental sciences. What role do you think chemistry plays in solving these challenges?

At the risk of sounding glib, I think chemistry is fundamental to solving the global food security crises. If you start with soil - three quarters of the Earth's land area is degraded. That's the estimate from the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Chemistry and  biogeochemistry have a role to play in finding the soil amendments and techniques that are needed to regenerate soils so that we can continue the intensification of agricultural production .

Chemistry is also fundamental to plant health. We need new approaches to pest and disease management. These will have a big chemistry component to them, as will advances in animal health, development of vaccines, and diagnostic test kits. If you know how to diagnose animal diseases, and do it quickly, outbreaks can be controlled. Rapid tests for the presence of hazards like allergens, pathogens, and toxic chemicals are also helpful from a food safety perspective.

Chemistry has got a role to play all the way through.

Are their areas of research within chemistry that you think are particularly critical to international food security?

There was a report that came from the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago that was called “Breakthroughs 2030”. It identified five key breakthroughs in agriculture that were necessary in order to secure future agricultural yields and build us toward the goal of “Zero Hunger”.

At the top of the list was transdisciplinary research and systems approaches. That was woven through some of my earlier comments on the role of chemistry in food security, but I want to highlight that it is enormously important.

Another area that they identified was sensing technologies. These have applications throughout the entire food system - sensing soil nutrients, water levels, and plant health, as well as applications in livestock. That role of sensing is an area where chemists have a big leadership role to play, along with engineers.

One of the initiatives you were involved in during the Obama presidency was developing open data policies. Why was this a priority and how is this helpful to scientists?

During the Obama administration, open government was a priority, and open data was part of the route towards open government. There was also a companion movement that had started before and continues now on open science.

I was advocating that we move towards open science policies domestically and internationally. Open science would reduce the amount of unneeded duplication in research that is going on internationally. Replication of our research is important. Verification of the research is important, but unneeded duplication - when the amount of research money that is going into agriculture globally is too small to begin with - does not make good sense. I view open science as a way to coordinate the research efforts globally to get the most out of the government research investments that are going into agriculture.

That was one reason for the open data policy, and the other was to accelerate research on climate smart agriculture. We launched the International Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases that was focused on standardizing our experimental designs and the measurements that were being done to understand agricultural greenhouse emissions from different cropping systems as well as from livestock systems around the world. If we could do that type of collaboration and standardize, we could share our data and do analysis that we would not have been able to do without standardization.

In December, you will participate in the Zero Hunger Summit, which is part of the ACS’s Campaign for a Sustainable Future. This online conference is organized to explore the role of chemistry and engineering in sustainable agriculture and food security. What are you hoping to come from this event?

My hope would be that we can entice some of the leading chemists, and some of the stars in the next generation, to take on these kinds of problems and to participate in that transdisciplinary research that's really needed to address food security. I just hope we can entice the next generation that this is the place to spend your time. It's a really rewarding career area. It's fascinating with all its dimensions. And you can really make a difference.

Register for the Zero Hunger Summit.



H.N. Cheng
Food Security

Paul J. Dauenhauer
Sustainable Manufacturing