Advancing sustainability in agriculture: Insights from OCS leaders

By Chelsea Radford, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

In May 2023, my ASU Sustainable Food Systems cohort and I made our way to Washington, D.C., for our Policy Immersive course. We had the extreme privilege of meeting with countless individuals who work at the USDA and other government agencies. Two of the folks we met with during our trip were Dr. Deirdra Chester and Dr. Richard Derkson, who work at USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS).

Dr. Deirdra Chester is currently serving as the Director of the OCS. She is responsible for delivering high-quality science and research that support the policies and practices of the department. She explained that her grandpa was a peanut farmer, which is part of her inspiration for her work. During our meeting, Dr. Chester exuded enthusiasm while discussing her role as the Director of OCS. It was clear that maintaining the highest standards for federally funded scientific research is a significant priority for her. Some of the ways Dr. Chester and the OCS show their commitment to high-quality and reliable science are through the promotion of scientific integrity, encouragement of open communication, and by providing funding opportunities for rigorous research. She also mentioned the work of the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA). AGARDA was established in the 2018 Farm Bill to develop technologies and products for long-term challenges in food and agriculture. Some of the challenges AGARDA targets are crop yields, waste reduction, and increased sustainability. These are necessary focus areas to keep the U.S. at the forefront of global agricultural research and development. A strategic framework has been outlined for the program’s execution.

Dr. Richard Derksen is a respected leader in agricultural research who serves as the Deputy Director of the OCS. With over 25 years of experience in crop production and protection engineering, he offers valuable guidance on agricultural programs. When hearing from Dr.

Derkson, he described the three overarching roles of the OCS: Coordinating research, upholding high standards for scientific research, and effectively communicating science. OCS ensures equitable access to information through partnerships with community organizations and training programs to help individuals and businesses access the information they need to thrive.

He also stated that the OCS is working on measuring success with their work since they provide data to USDA, other government agencies, and the public. Dr. Derkson shared that the National Ag Library is an excellent resource for people to access scientific food and agriculture research.

Our meeting with Dr. Deirdra Chester and Dr. Richard Derkson at the USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist was enlightening and inspiring. It is reassuring to know that dedicated individuals and organizations are working towards a more sustainable and equitable future in food and agriculture.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.