U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2008 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 appropriation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research and education programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization with more than 42,000 members. The ASM 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 ASM is concerned with the FY 2008 proposed budget of approximately $2 billion for agricultural research and development, a $245 million decrease from FY 2007, and a $428 million cut from FY 2006. The steady decline in federal funding for agricultural research will have detrimental effects on both public health and the nation’s economy. Agricultural research is critical to USDA’s role in oversight of domestic and imported food production to ensure a safe food supply and to the nation’s stake in domestic and global markets. In 2006, US agricultural exports reached a record $71 billion, an $8 billion increase over 2005. There are strong correlations between food safety, food markets, and the US economy. The estimated costs of five foodborne bacterial diseases alone total nearly $7 billion per year, with more than $71 million just for E. coli O157 in contaminated ground beef. Recent outbreaks of disease linked to spinach and peanut butter and subsequent product recalls illustrate the effects of contaminated food on private sector markets.

The ASM asks Congress to increase support for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the lead scientific agency that conducts intramural research, and the USDA National Research Initiative (NRI), the competitive, peer-reviewed grants program that supports extramural research. USDA research efforts in food safety, climate change, crop production, alternative fuels, the environment and other strategic areas are producing tangible returns on past federal investments. US agricultural output has more than doubled in the last 50 years, attributed by economists almost entirely to increased productivity by US producers who benefit from the nation’s investment in research and technology. Genetic improvements, for example, have accounted for half the yield gains in major cereal crops since the 1930s. The net gain from crop genetics research is estimated to be about $385 million per year in the United States and more than $600 million globally. The world’s population likely will reach 9 billion by about 2050 but agricultural experts foresee shortfalls in cropland expansion for food production, thus the increased food supply will need to come from enhanced yields based on basic and applied research.

The President’s FY 2008 budget request would reduce funding for the ARS by 11 percent from FY 2007 and FY 2006. The ASM urges Congress to provide at least $1.15 billion for the ARS in FY 2008, the same level as FY 2007 and FY 2006. The President proposes funding the NRI at $257 million in FY 2008, an increase of $67 million over FY 2007; however, $61 million of the increase will be allocated to the integrated programs transferred into the NRI and biofuel research, providing the NRI with an actual increase of only $6 million for its base programs.

Food Safety

Strong support for the NRI and ARS is needed to provide the fundamental research essential to creating efficient and accurate technologies for the protection of human health and agricultural quality. This research is critical considering there are approximately 76 million foodborne illness cases in the United States per year. The US has recently suffered from several bacterial foodborne illness outbreaks, including a widespread E. coli outbreak in spinach last summer that sickened more than 200 people and killed three. Several other outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli also occurred last year. The most recent problem resulted in a large recall of all Peter Pan and certain Great Value peanut butter contaminated with salmonella.

Recently, USDA supported scientists identified a safe and effective new sanitizer (acidified sodium chlorite, or SANOVA) that achieved a 5-log reduction of E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella on produce even in the presence of large organic loads. The researchers optimized sanitation treatment procedures to ensure good quality of shredded carrot and fresh-cut lettuce while maintaining the effective killing power of the sanitizer.

Because livestock and poultry are often the original source of pathogens (even in the case of produce-borne outbreaks), additional research is needed to strengthen production safeguards that can protect animal and human health. Other ARS research groups have been developing interventions using bacteriocins (natural antimicrobial agents) and bacteriophage (bacteria-killing agents) that upon commercialization will contribute to a reduction in campylobacter on chicken, leading to greater food safety.

Additionally, there is concern that some food borne bacterial pathogens may become resistant to certain antimicrobial agents. It is necessary to have continued support for antimicrobial resistance monitoring programs, such as the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) the Collaboration on Animal Health Food Safety Epidemiology (CAHFSE) program to generate data that will guide appropriate interventions in the food production chain to minimize and contain antimicrobial resistant bacterial pathogens in the food supply.

Through the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the USDA is ensuring the nation’s food quality, providing safety interventions, and contributing to pathogen reduction. The ASM supports the President’s FY 2008 requested increases above FY 2007 of 4.8 percent and 35.4 percent for FSIS and APHIS respectively.

In 2002, the import share of total US food consumption was 13 percent and continues to grow today. As agricultural imports increase, it is important to develop better systems to screen produce and other food imports at the borders. Federal support of research is needed to develop better methods for rapid detection, sampling, and intervention to protect the public from food borne pathogens.

Bioeconomy Based Systems

Agricultural research is a critical component of discovering biobased products such as polymers, lubricants, solvents, composites, and energy. The USDA research programs expand science-based knowledge and technologies to support the efficient, economical and environmentally friendly conversion of biomass, more specifically agricultural and municipal residuals into value-added industrial products and biofuels. Microbial research is essential to understanding and thus creating efficient conversion and production methods of biomass.

As research in the area of biofuels and bioenergy expands, it also affects other aspects of food production such as the fact that corn prices for livestock will increase as more is diverted to biofuel production potentially affecting the food supply, exports, and agricultural practices overall. The ASM urges the USDA to expand further the research programs on alternative bioenergy production to explore new resources and methods that would not compete with the food system, such as cellulose-based fermentation.

The ASM notes that more research is needed to understand the impact that removing biomass for energy and other products has on the sustainability of soils and water. Since soil sustainability is intrinsically linked to the microbial health of the soil, and the health of soil can directly affect its ability to filter and clean water, a greater understanding of soil microbiology is essential to ensuring sustainability.

Greater support for the NRI and ARS is essential to address the challenges of the emerging biobased industry with programs that support research, development and demonstration.

Climate Change

One of the most pressing issues faced by plant and animal producers is adapting to the impact of global change and climate on crop or animal production. Changing climate may alter bacterial and fungal pathogen pressures on plant and animal production and nutrient cycling and availability. Agriculture can contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gases that are microbial driven. The agricultural community needs scientific information for planning and decision making, to ensure economic viability. Scientific information on global change and climate and its impacts on soils, water, air, microbial biology, as well as plant and animal biology, and the general environment will produce robust simulation models to provide guidance on the relative benefits associated with agronomic decisions.

Current NRI-funded weather and climate projects focus on determining the effects of global change and climate on land-based systems and the global carbon cycle and on identifying agricultural and forestry activities that can help reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. Research can help identify, describe, and quantify processes involved in the cycling of organic and inorganic carbon in soil. Strong support of NRI is needed to develop new tools for accurately measuring greenhouse gases, methods for measuring and estimating carbon in ecosystems at different scales, and effective ways to sustain productivity in a changing environment. Information from this research can be used to achieve national goals on carbon dioxide and methane emissions reductions.

Genomics


The Microbial Genome Sequencing Program has been supported jointly by the NRI and the National Science Foundation (NSF) since Fiscal Year 2001. The program supports high-throughput sequencing of the genomes of a broad range of microorganisms and the development and implementation of strategies, tools, and technologies to make currently available genome sequences more valuable to the user community. Over 100 microbial genomes have been sequenced to date because of this program. The broad availability of these sequences has led to important insights into how the structure and content of microbial genomes affect the ability of microorganisms to function and adapt to the environments in which they live. The USDA/CSREES and NSF Microbial Genome Sequencing Program will lead to improved breeding strategies, increased disease resistance, and enhanced yield and nutritive value of agriculturally important plants and animals. The ASM urges Congress to provide strong support for the USDA genomics initiative.

Soil Processes

Microbial research is essential in protecting the nation’s natural resources, soil and water, and the subsequent impact on the supply and quality of food. The NRI is currently supporting research that will potentially lead to an effective treatment to entrap, remove, or inactivate cryptosporidia oocysts, which persist in soil and water. Cryptosporidia are a potentially fatal protozoan that infects humans, livestock, and wildlife. When an effective control mechanism is developed, it may prove to be effective in dealing with all pathogens, including Salmonella, enteric bacteria, and viruses. The ASM urges Congress to increase support for the NRI to continue and expand on opportunities in soil processes research that is critical for the health and well-being of the nation.

Workforce Development and Training

Studies project that over the period 2005-2010, employment opportunities for U.S. college graduates with expertise in the food, agricultural, and natural resources systems are expected to average over 52,000 openings per year, with some 49,300 qualified graduates available each year for these positions; with approximately 32,300 new graduates available from the U.S. colleges of agriculture and life sciences, forestry, and veterinary medicine and 17,000 qualified graduates from allied higher education programs such as biological sciences, engineering, business, health sciences, communication, and applied technologies will be available. It is essential to foster programs that assess what the future workforce demands will be in agricultural research and contribute to workforce development and training to meet these demands.

The ASM urges Congress to increase support for the NRI. As grant applications have increased, and funding has remained flat essentially for the last 4 years, young scientists are discouraged by the low funding rate of just 16 percent. Increasing funding for the NRI will increase the funding rate, providing greater opportunity for young scientists.

Conclusion

The ASM urges Congress to increase research funding for the USDA. The 2002 Farm Bill stated the sense of Congress to double funding for agriculture research over the next 5 years. The ASM is concerned that we are losing ground in the important field of agricultural research, just as the challenges the nation faces in competitiveness, food safety, energy, and climate change, places more emphasis on the need for greater research to answer these demands.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2008 appropriation for the USDA.

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