U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2006 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) appreciates the opportunity to submit testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 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. 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 plant, animal and human 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 ensuring food availability, quality and safety, as well as 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. ASM urges Congress to provide increased funding for research programs within the USDA in FY 2006.

 

Microbiological research in agriculture is vital to understanding and finding solutions to foodborne diseases, endemic diseases of long standing, new and emerging plant and animal diseases, development of new agriculture products and processes and addressing existing and emerging environmental challenges. 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. According to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report, Agricultural Research and Development: Public and Private Investments Under Alternative Markets and Institutions, the rate of return on public investment in basic agricultural research is estimated to be between 60 and 90 percent.

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 and the environment 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, NRI was able to fund only 11 percent of the grant proposals it received, while agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NSF fund between 20-30 percent. ASM urges Congress to fund NRI at the President’s requested level of $250 million in FY 2006. NRI’s requested increase comes from the proposal to shift CSREES Integrated Activities, such as food safety and water quality, making up $40 million of the proposed $70 million increase, and to reallocate funds from the CSREES formula grants to the NRI in the administration’s effort to eliminate the formula grant programs by FY 2007. If new funds cannot be found, ASM supports the proposed 50 percent reduction of formula grant funds, part of which will be redirected to the NRI, and the remaining 50 percent be phased out over a 3-year period rather than a 1-year period of time, giving the institutions currently receiving formula grants time to adjust. ASM supports the Administration’s effort to increase competitively awarded funding mechanisms and believes that competitive grants ensure the best science.

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 and products. ASM supports the President’s requested level of $250 million for NRI.

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. ASM supports the President’s request for this initiative within the USDA budget of $376 million for FY 2006, an increase of $78 million over FY 2005. Of this total, $59 million is for the completion of the USDA’s National Centers for Animal Health in Ames, Iowa. This funding will go towards:

Enhancing food defense by: 

  • Expanding the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) with participating laboratories including implementation of the Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network (eLEXNET) and an electronic methods repository; 
  • Upgrading laboratory capabilities to quickly identify chemical and radiological threats to the food supply; and 
  • Strengthening research on diagnostic methods for quickly identifying various pathogens and contaminated foods and innovative biosecure foods.

Enhancing agriculture defense by: 

  • Strengthening research on rapid response systems for bioterror agents, improved vaccines, and identifying genes affecting disease resistance;
  • Expanding the National Plant Disease Recovery System to ensure disease resistant seed varieties are continually developed and made available to producers in the event of a natural or intentional catastrophic disease or pest outbreak;
  • Substantially expanding the Regional Diagnostic Network with links to the National Agricultural Pest Information System;
  • Establishing a Higher Education Agrosecurity Program for 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;
  • Establishing connectivity with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) integration and analysis to improve biosurveillance of pests and diseases in plants;
  • Increasing activities to safeguard plants from intentional threats to spread pests and diseases;
  • Strengthening the system to track biological disease agents;
  • Improving USDA’s ability to respond to a disease outbreak, including increasing supplies of vaccines for the National Veterinary Stockpile;
  • Providing funds for completing the consolidated state-of-the-art BSL-3 animal research and diagnostic laboratory at Ames, Iowa; and
  • Improving biocontainment safeguards at the Foreign Disease Weed Science Laboratory in Frederick, MD.

ASM believes there should be greater emphasis on research in the Food and Agriculture Defense 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.

Food Safety
Each year foodborne pathogens cause 76 million human illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,200 deaths, and an unknown number of chronic conditions, according to the CDC (ERS: Economics of Foodborne Disease: Feature, 2005). The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that the medical costs, productivity losses, and costs of premature deaths for diseases caused by just five foodborne pathogens exceeds $6.9 billion per year in the United States. The USDA plays a vital 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. The most significant outcome of food safety research is to provide greater public health protection which, in part, can be measured by reductions in the incidence of foodborne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the 2003 incidence of illness caused by four major foodborne pathogens exceed the levels outlined in the National Health Objectives for 2010 (CDC: MMWR, April 30, 2004). Although increases are requested for the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, we note that a reduction in funding for food safety within ARS has been proposed, and level funding is requested within CSREES. Without a sustained significant increase in the level of food safety research funding, meeting the National Health Objectives for 2010 in all likelihood will not become reality. ASM recommends a substantial increase in food safety research, which is essential to ensure the protection of the nation’s health.

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. Determining the function of the sequenced genomes (functional genomics) and analyses of the data (bioinformatics) now need investment for new management techniques and tools. 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 utilize it have implications for virtually all aspects of agriculture. An increase of $11 million has been requested for the NRI in FY 2006 to support investments in the sequencing and annotation of the maize and swine genomes. A $9.2 million increase in animal and plant genomics research within the ARS has been requested. ASM supports the requested increases for the genomics initiative and USDA.

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 and opportunistic plant pathogens and soil inhabiting microorganisms can be causal agents of infection and disease in humans. For emerging diseases to be effectively detected and controlled the biology, ecology, and mechanism(s) for pathogenicity of the causal pathogens must be understood and weaknesses exploited to limit their impact. This research will help address the risk to humans from emerging diseases and opportunistic pathogens, and will ensure the safety of plant and animal products. Additionally, expanded research is needed to accelerate the development of information and technologies for the protection of United States agricultural commodities,, wildlife and human health against emerging 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; the USDA has expanded monitoring to include the Collaboration on Animal Health Food Safety Epidemiology (CAHFSE) program. USDA support for these projects 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. 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 of leadership on food, agriculture, and natural resources, based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management should be supported. 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 by increasing funding for agricultural research programs, including providing $250 million for NRI in FY 2006.

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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