April 15, 2011 - U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2012 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriation for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) science and food safety programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 38,000 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 environmental well being.

The ASM is concerned about the proposed FY 2012 budget for USDA science and food safety programs. The proposed cuts will negatively impact essential research and risk the safety and security of the US food supply. The ASM urges Congress to fund the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) at a level of $350 million in FY 2012 which is only half of AFRI’s authorized level of $700 million and to provide at least $1.2 billion for the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) and $1.4 billon for the National Institute Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

USDA sponsored science has advanced food safety, water quality, optimal agriculture outputs, sustainable energy and animal and public health. USDA food safety programs integrate research, surveillance and education to support the USDA’s oversight of all meat, poultry and processed egg products consumed in the United States.

USDA research programs protect and promote both the quality and quantity of agriculture products in domestic and global markets. Last year, US agriculture generated products worth nearly $356 billion, a significant increase over the previous year. Agriculture exports in 2010 were a record $115.8 billion, up from $98.5 billion in 2009 and are projected to reach a new record of more than $126 billion this year. The 2010 value of agriculture imports totaled $81.9 billion with a trade surplus of nearly $34 billion.

USDA inspectors, scientists and regulatory experts rely on the best available science and technology to ensure product safety and marketability. USDA funded research focuses on national security and economic vitality, including agriculture’s responses to climate change, clean energy, safe food production, high quality environments and disease prevention. As an example, ARS geneticists and their university collaborators recently reported positive results with new corn genetically resistant to aflatoxin producing fungi. Annual losses due to aflatoxin contamination of the US corn crop reached an estimated $192 million last year alone.

USDA Research Improves US Agriculture

As the USDA’s principal in-house research agency, the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) supplies much of the science underlying the expansive USDA mission to provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development and nutrition. There are more than 100 ARS research facilities in the US and abroad, conducting roughly 1,000 research projects. Most of the 8,500 ARS employees are deployed throughout this country, including the USDA’s approximately 2,500 scientists. Collaborations with academia, industry, other federal groups and international partners further leverage ARS capabilities.

Food safety research benefits greatly from ARS funding. ARS research has developed and advanced rapid test technologies to more quickly detect foodborne pathogens, alternatives to antibiotic use in food, animal production and brought a better understanding of how foodborne pathogens enter the environment. Continued and sustainable funding strengthens the prevention of high priority infectious diseases of livestock and poultry, including eradication of cattle tick fever in Texas and countermeasures against significant threats to the US economy like swine fever and foot and mouth disease. ARS researchers are working to address costly crop diseases including rust diseases attacking legumes.

ARS research consistently addresses issues of national importance, like those delineated in two 2010 reports from the National Research Council recommending use of new discoveries in science and technology, to resolve (1) the national imperative for sustainable agricultural systems and (2) the correct balance among the nation’s sometimes conflicting needs for food, energy and a clean environment. ARS researchers are using genomics and other advanced techniques to optimize biofuel production through more efficient microbial degradation of plant biomass sources.

Current ARS focus areas reveal the breadth of the USDA’s scientific responsibilities. New Products/Product Quality/Value Added; Food Safety; Livestock/Crop Production; Livestock/Crop Protection; Human Nutrition; and Environmental Stewardship. ARS resources benefit public health, the environment and economic well-being at the local and national levels.

ARS funded results reported in the past year included the following:

    • The ARS Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory developed a new vaccine for Newcastle disease in poultry using reverse genetics technology; a 2002-2003 outbreak forced destruction of more than 3.4 million birds in California, Nevada, and Texas, costing over $160 million in California alone.
    • ARS scientists combined several laboratory methods, including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, to detect pathogenic Escherichia coli and Salmonella bacteria in waterways at lower levels than any previous method, in support of the USDA food safety initiative.
    • ARS researchers in Montana are evaluating three fungi as potential biocontrol agents against grasshopper and Mormon cricket infestations that can destroy livestock-sustaining grasses and cash crops like wheat and alfalfa.
    • ARS microbiologists and chemists used infrared spectroscopy for the first time to more rapidly analyze field soils for beneficial fungi that help plants absorb nutrients and water; another team of ARS engineers and biologists used hyperspectral imaging to distinguish the foodborne pathogen Campylobacter from other microorganisms incubated for 24 hours on solid laboratory media, potentially replacing standard screening assays that can take days to a week to complete.
    • ARS chemists and industry partners isolated and cloned 12 genes from microbes collected from a cow’s rumen that are responsible for enzymatic degradation of plant materials, for eventual introduction into E. coli to commercially produce the enzymes for biofuel production.

In FY 2012, ARS intends to strengthen technology intensive programs like USDA’s germplasm collections containing animal, insect and microbial genetic materials. These materials are utilized in biological control measures against microbial pathogens and insects and evaluations of new bioengineered organisms, as well as microbial strain stocks for biosecurity purposes.

ARS technologies are vital to successful actions undertaken by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which protects US agriculture against devastating product losses. In FY 2010, for example, USDA halted the spread of citrus greening disease, preventing $2.88 billion in lost annual production. Further, the USDA eradicated plum pox virus in Pennsylvania and preserved the nation’s $1.4 billion stone fruit industry.

Improved germplasm storage, data collection capabilities, personnel training and laboratory tools are needed to respond to the steadily increasing use of genetics in US and global agriculture. During FY 2010, USDA evaluated about 91,000 genetic constructs, compared to 63,000 in FY 2009. This labor intensive trend greatly complicates the USDA’s regulatory decisions in approving new genetically engineered (GE) organisms. Modern scientific information and capabilities are compulsory in determining whether a GE plant can be deregulated or deemed safe for agricultural use. In FY 2012, USDA expects to expedite deregulation decisions and reach a cumulative total of 100 approved GE plant lines, compared to 81 in 2010. Trade barriers related to biotechnology, as well as public uneasiness demand greater USDA science resources. Genetically engineered crops and products derived from those crops currently comprise about one third of total US agriculture exports. Further, an estimated 80 percent of processed foods sold in this country contain GE ingredients.

NIFA Funding Supports Innovation in Agriculture

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the successor to USDA’s external research, education, extension and related programs, distributes funding for agriculture related efforts at state agricultural experiment stations, national laboratories, education centers and other institutions.

Created in the 2008 Farm Bill and housed in NIFA, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the USDA’s primary competitive research grants program. Despite funding levels well below the fully authorized level of $700 million, AFRI awarded more than $176 million in grants to US universities and colleges during FY 2010. AFRI budgets underwrite studies like the current development of a risk assessment model for norovirus contamination in the food service setting. In addition to research, NIFA and AFRI are contributors to the national goal of building a technology competent workforce. The ASM urges Congress to fund AFRI at $350 million in FY 2012.

AFRI allocates no less than 60 percent of its support to basic or fundamental, research and no less than 40 percent for applied research. AFRI’s priority areas are: 1) plant health and production and plant products; 2) animal health and production and animal products; 3) food safety, nutrition, and health; 4) renewable energy, natural resources, and environment; 5) agriculture systems and technology; and 6) agriculture economics and rural communities.

In the past year, AFRI sponsored a broad scope of studies including farm and forestry management practices to reduce agricultural emissions and improve air quality. Other NIFA funded grant awards in 2010 involved USDA partners. The new $50 million program to develop models of climate change impacts on land, crops and animals, co sponsored by NIFA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is an example of successful multidisciplinary and multiagency cooperation.

Last May, NIFA and DOE announced up to $33 million to jointly support extramural projects that advance the production of Biofuels. NIFA funding is a critical investment in agricultural innovation, generating results like last year’s first time demonstration that chromosomes transferred between strains of Fusarium oxysporum can convert a non disease causing strain of the fungus into pathogens. F. oxysporum causes a variety of diseases in important crops including bananas, tomatoes and cotton. Such research advances NIFA’s long range goal to reduce cereal yield losses due to fungal pathogens by 50 percent worldwide by 2021.

USDA Oversight Promotes Food Safety, Public Health

One in six people in the US suffers from a foodborne illness each year according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preventing these costly illnesses is now a national priority. With regulatory oversight of domestic and imported meat, poultry and farmed catfish, USDA is at the front line of protecting against foodborne disease. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (CFSIS) regulates about 20 percent of the US food supply and employs about 8,600 personnel. In 2009, FSIS conducted nearly 5 million inspections, evaluated 400,000 food samples, undertook 56,000 investigations, and initiated more than 1,200 recalls of FSIS regulated products.

The ASM is concerned about specific budget cuts in the FY 2012 FSIS request, particularly the decreased funding for food inspection at federal, state and international levels. The remarkable diversity of our food supply and food sources should mandate that FSIS capabilities be expanded not constricted. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office listed federal oversight of food safety as a “high risk area”, associated with rising consumer demand for imported foods, a threat best addressed by more inspections at US ports and foreign processing plants. Persistent disease associated with US produced meat, poultry and egg products calls for more FSIS funding.

The ASM supports requested increases for the FSIS communications infrastructure and expansion of the interagency Federal State Foodborne Disease Outbreak Response Team, which will help accelerate FSIS investigations. USDA collaborates with CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal agencies to detect, monitor and prevent foodborne diseases related to meat, poultry and processed eggs. FSIS currently focuses on illnesses caused by Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7. The USDA estimates that these bacteria collectively cause only one case of illness for every 299,000 servings of meat and poultry consumed annually, but recent outbreaks remind us of how costly these diseases can be. The USDA’s FY 2010 target for illnesses tied to these three pathogens was about 577,000, but the actual number was an estimated 640,000 due to persistent Salmonella most often transmitted through shell eggs and broiler chickens. In 2009, 97 percent of illnesses linked to USDA regulated products were due to Salmonella. In FY 2012, FSIS will intensify surveillance and prevention with the specific goal of preventing approximately 22,600 Salmonella illnesses from FSIS regulated products.

Conclusion

Research in the agricultural and biological sciences is imperative to combat current and future threats to human, environmental, plant and animal health. The research supported by the USDA should be a priority that deserves steady, predictable and sustainable funding; the future of our agricultural systems, a basis for human health, relies on it.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2012 appropriation for the USDA.

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