Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Kathleen Merrigan, PhD ‘00

Working for sustainable agriculture at the USDA
October 27, 2010

A typical day’s schedule for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan reveals a lot about her and her agency.

“I put in 12-hour days, which consist of making decisions in rapid fire,” she says cheerfully. “I might have a meeting about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example. And then I’m off to give three or four speeches on any number of topics. And then I have business at the White House–I’m there three or four times a week.”

Merrigan says people are usually surprised to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is involved in something like the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the agency’s tasks was persuading farmers to flood their land to give migratory birds alternative landing sites.

In general, she says, there’s been a shift in tone at the USDA. Some 30 years ago, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz infamously intensified large-scale U.S. agribusiness with his mantra “Get big or get out.” Merrigan says the current mantra would be more along the lines of “Ag is back.”

“There’s a new interest in where food comes from and how it’s produced,” she says. Her “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative highlights the connection between farmers and consumers while supporting local and regional food systems. “I’m trying to ride that tidal wave of interest to help rural communities and urban communities–all across America–to reconnect with farmers,” she says.

Building connections between people, food, and farmers has long been central to Merrigan’s work. In 1990, she worked as a staffer on the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, where she played a role in standardizing organic food labeling by helping draft the Organic Foods Production Act and lobbying for its passage. In 2000 she earned a PhD from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and then joined the faculty at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Merrigan was nominated to her current position by President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2009. “Sustainable local and regional food systems is one of the things that the president talked about on the campaign trail. So when I took this job,” she says with some pride, “I had a mandate from our top leader.”

Merrigan lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband, Michael. They have two elementary-school-aged children.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way
supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way

This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

The stunning image was made possible by linking eight existing radio observatories across the globe.

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.