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

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

masked travellers at Heathrow airport
masked travellers at Heathrow airport

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The variant has caused alarm and immediate border shutdowns—but we still don't know how it will respond to vaccines.

egasus' fortune after macron hack
egasus' fortune after macron hack

NSO was about to sell hacking tools to France. Now it’s in crisis.

French officials were close to buying controversial surveillance tool Pegasus from NSO earlier this year. Now the US has sanctioned the Israeli company, and insiders say it’s on the ropes.

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.