U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2005 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) appreciates the opportunity to submit testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 appropriation for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world, with more than 43,000 members who work in academic, industrial, medical, and governmental institutions worldwide. The ASM’s mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well-being.

The USDA sponsors research and education programs which contribute to solving agricultural problems of high national priority and sustaining safe food and a competitive agricultural economy. U.S. agriculture faces new challenges, including threats from emerging infectious diseases in plants and animals, climate change, and public concern about food safety and security. It is critical to increase the visibility and investment in agriculture research to respond to these challenges. The following testimony will focus on USDA’s research and education programs.

The ASM supports increases proposed for the USDA Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative, the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) Initiative, and the Genomics Initiative. The ASM recommends greater emphasis on funding for research in these programs. Microbiological research in agriculture is vital to understanding and finding solutions to foodborne diseases, new and emerging plant and animal diseases, and the development of new agriculture products and processes. Unfortunately, federal investment in agricultural research has not kept pace with the need for additional agricultural research to solve emerging problems. According to National Science Foundation (NSF) data, agriculture research makes up only 4 percent of federal funds devoted to basic research. ASM urges Congress to provide increased funding for research programs within the USDA.

USDA National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program

The National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRI) was established in 1991 in response to recommendations outlined in Investing in Research: A Proposal to Strengthen the Agricultural, Food and Environmental System, a 1989 report by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Board on Agriculture. This publication called for increased funding of high priority research, that is supported by USDA through a competitive peer-review process directed at:

  • Increasing the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture. 
  • Improving human health and well-being through an abundant, safe, and high-quality food supply. 
  • Sustaining the quality and productivity of the natural resources upon which agriculture depends. Continued interest in and support of the NRI is reflected in two subsequent NRC reports, Investing in the National Research Initiative: An Update of the Competitive Grants Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published in 1994, and National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural Resources Research, published in 2000.

Today, the NRI, housed within USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), supports research on key problems of national and regional importance in biological, environmental, physical, and social sciences relevant to agriculture, food, and the environment on a peer-reviewed, competitive basis. Additionally, NRI enables USDA to develop new partnerships with other federal agencies that advance agricultural science. An example of such collaboration is USDA’s partnership with the NSF on the Microbe Project.

In FY 2004, funding for NRI suffered a decrease of $2 million from FY 2003, providing just $164 million. Comparatively, the USDA requested $180 million for NRI in FY 2005, a decrease of $20 million from the request for FY 2004, and a decrease of $60 million from the request for FY 2003. NRI can fund only between 14-15% of the high quality research proposals received, while agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NSF fund between 20-30% of the research proposals. ASM urges Congress to fund NRI at the President’s requested level for FY 2003 of $240 million in FY 2005. Increased funding for competitive, peer reviewed grants is needed to increase the size and number of awards and to pursue more research opportunities. Additional funding for the NRI is needed to expand research in microbial genomics and to provide more funding for merit reviewed basic research with long-term potential for new discoveries. Without an increase in funding for NRI, the following critical research will be severely limited:

  • Research showing linkages between food and human diseases; 
  • Research showing new ways to combat insects, weeds, plant and animal disease in fields and ranches; 
  • Research that helps keep pathogens and other dangers out of our air, water, soil, plants, and animals; 
  • Research establishing new crops, improved livestock and economic opportunities; 
  • Research that creates new food and processing techniques, producing greater value and profitability; 
  • Research on air culture to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

USDA Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative

The Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative is an interagency initiative to improve the federal government’s capability to rapidly identify and characterize a bioterrorist attack, by improving the national surveillance capabilities in human health, food, agriculture, and environmental monitoring. The President’s request for this initiative within the USDA budget is $381 million for FY 2005, an increase of $79 million over FY 2004. This funding will go towards:

Enhancing food defense by:

  • Increasing surveillance and monitoring of pathogens and other hazards in meat, poultry and eggs and establishing connectivity with the integration and analysis function at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); 
  • Establishing a Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) with participating laboratories including implementation of the Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network (eLEXNET) and an electronic methods repository; and strengthening research to develop diagnostic methods for quickly identifying various pathogens and contaminated foods; and 
  • Developing diagnostic methods to quickly identify pathogens and contaminated foods.

Enhancing agriculture defense by:

  • Providing funds for completing the consolidated state-of-the-art BSL-3 animal research and diagnostic laboratory at Ames, Iowa; 
  • Establishing a National Plant Disease Recovery System that will quickly coordinate with the seed industry to provide producers with resistant stock before the next planting season in the event of a natural or intentional catastrophic disease or pest outbreak; 
  • Expanding the Regional Diagnostic Network with links to the National Agricultural Pest Information System; 
  • Establishing a Higher Education Agrosecurity Program that will provide capacity building grants to universities for interdisciplinary degree programs to prepare food defense professionals; 
  • Substantially enhancing the monitoring and surveillance of pests and diseases in plants and animals, including targeted National wildlife surveillance; 
  • Increasing State Cooperative Agreements to better select and identify plant and animal health threats; 
  • Increasing biosurveillance of pests and diseases in plants and animals and establishing connectivity with the integration and analysis function at DHS; 
  • Establishing a system to track select disease agents of plants; and 
  • Increasing the availability of vaccines through the National veterinary vaccine bank.

ASM believes there should be greater emphasis on research in the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative, which provides just a small portion of funding, $31 million, for research of the overall $381 million requested for this initiative. ASM recommends an increase in funding, both extramurally and intramurally, for research on pathogenic microorganisms as part of the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative.

USDA BSE Initiative


In the wake of the discovery of the first incident of BSE in a Holstein cow from Washington State, the USDA has requested an increase for BSE related activities of $47 million in FY 2005 over FY 2004, for a total of $60 million. USDA has allocated only $5 million of the total request for BSE activities related to research. This level of funding for research is inappropriately low. ASM urges Congress to increase the funding level for BSE research above the $5 million requested. Basic research is essential in this area for the development of scientifically sound prevention strategies.

Food Safety

The USDA plays a key role in the government’s effort to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. Continued and sustained research is important to safeguarding the nation’s food supply and focusing on methods and technologies to prevent microbial foodborne disease and emerging pathogens. Although increases are provided for the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative, for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and for BSE activities, we note that funding for food safety is level within ARS and only a small increase is provided within CSREES.

Genomics Initiative

The NRI and the ARS fund USDA collaborative efforts in the field of genomics. There are opportunities to leverage USDA investments with those of the NIH, the Department of Energy, and the NSF in projects to map and sequence the genomes of agriculturally important species of plants, animals, and microbes. USDA plays an important role in coordinating and participating in interagency workgroups on domestic animal, microbial, and plant genomics. Access to genomic information and the new tools to exploit it have implications for virtually all aspects of agriculture. In 2005, the NRI will support investments in functional genomics and databases. The USDA budget requests a $12 million increase in animal and plant genomics research within the ARS, although the current funding levels are not specified in the budget request. There is no specific increase in the NRI for this initiative which suggests the program may have to reallocate from other under-funded programs to support this initiative.

Emerging Infectious Diseases in Plants and Animals

The food production and distribution system in the U.S. is vulnerable to the introduction of pathogens and toxins through natural processes, global commerce, and intentional means. The ASM supports increases in the USDA research budget for emerging diseases and invasive species. Nearly 200 zoonotic diseases can be naturally transmitted from animals to man. For emerging diseases to be effectively detected and controlled, the biology and ecology of the causal pathogens must be understood and weaknesses exploited to limit their spread. This research will help address the risk to humans from zoonotic diseases and the safety of animal products. Additionally, expanded research is needed to accelerate the development of information and technologies for the protection of United States livestock, poultry, wildlife and human health against zoonotic diseases.

Antimicrobial Resistance Research

The USDA plays a key role in addressing the national and global increase in antimicrobial resistance and the complex issues surrounding this public health threat. The ARS Strategic Plan for 2003-2007 states the need to “determine how antimicrobial resistance is acquired, transmitted, maintained, in food-producing animals, and develop technologies or altered management strategies to control its occurrence.” In 1996, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA established the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) to monitor trends in antimicrobial resistance in foodborne pathogens. USDA support for this project should continue. USDA research also has a vital role to play in controlling the emergence of resistance in pathogens associated with food through NRI funded grants. ASM urges Congress to increase support for antimicrobial resistance surveillance, research, prevention, and control programs.

Conclusion

The USDA’s mission and goals include leadership on food, agriculture, and natural resources, based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.   With a significant investment in research, USDA will be better able to meet its goals. ASM urges Congress to provide sufficient funding for research at USDA increasing funding for agricultural research programs, including providing $240 million for NRI.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as the Department of Agriculture bill is considered throughout the appropriations process.

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