March 28, 2012 - U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2013

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 appropriation for food safety and science programs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 38,000 members.

The Administration’s FY 2013 budget for research and development (R&D) at USDA would provide $2.6 billion or a 2.7 percent increase over the FY 2012 level. There is a proposed increase of 23 percent for the USDA’s competitive grants program, the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI), which funds research at both USDA facilities and land grant universities.  Also increased is funding for research in food safety and global food security.   The budget would increase support for USDA bioenergy research as well, in part to develop cellulosic and algae-based biofuels.  We strongly support these program increases and ask Congress to approve the FY 2013 request for these resources necessary to strengthen USDA research.

Agriculture not only ensures a healthy, plenteous food supply, but contributes significantly to the economy.  Agriculture related businesses account for one in 12 US jobs.  Net farm income is forecast to be nearly $92 billion this year.  Farms and ranches produce food volumes roughly one-third greater than domestic demand, and the US export share of the global ag market is usually about 20 percent.  In 2011, exports of agriculture related products reached a record $136.3 billion, supporting more than 1 million jobs in an economic sector where exports outperform imports.

In 2010, US agriculture generated food products worth $352 billion, and USDA expects $410 billion for 2011 when market data are completed.  Higher crop yields, better animal breeding, and new products like genetically modified plants are among the many science based advances involved in the success of US agriculture.  R&D efforts have had tangible farm-to-fork results, making US agriculture statistically one of the nation’s most productive economic sectors.  USDA research also improves food safety, helps develop sustainable energy, protects animal health, and preserves water quality and the environment.  USDA personnel depend upon the best available methods and tools to accomplish public health goals like decreasing foodborne illnesses and crop losses due to microbial pathogens.

USDA Funding Advances Science Based Agriculture

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) conducts intramural research and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) distributes grants to colleges and universities for extramural research, extension, and education activities.  The ARS budget request for discretionary funding is $1.103 billion, which is $8 million over the FY 2012 enacted level.  The NIFA request is $1.244 billion or $37 million over FY 2012.  Updated science and technology like genomic databases are critical to USDA’s oversight of the agriculture enterprise in this country.  For example, one-third of total US ag exports are genetically engineered (GE) crops or products from these crops, and about 80 percent of processed foods sold in the United States contain GE-derived ingredients. Federal regulators test an increasing number of samples resulting from food biotechnology; in FY 2011 alone, testing increased by approximately 28 percent.  USDA investigators and educators clearly must access the latest information when assessing the safety of our food supply.  USDA researchers also discover best practice approaches to food production, microbial diseases of food animals and plants, and sustainable environments.  A 2011 report by the Government Accounting Office called for stronger efforts by USDA in collecting data on antibiotic use in food animals, to better understand the relationship between use and pathogens’ drug resistance. These science based activities require adequate funding each year for USDA R&D programs.

ARS maintains over 100 facilities in the United States and abroad with ongoing studies of optimal ag production, food safety and security, and environmental stewardship. ARS scientists are responsible for epidemiological studies of pest and disease transmission to protect crops.  The FY 2013 request identifies new proposed research, like the allocation of $7.6 million to develop management tools for soil-borne plant pathogens and nematodes. One goal is to identify beneficial soil microbes for use as biocontrol tools that stop plant pathogens naturally.  ARS also will increase capacity at its overseas biological control laboratories to find new biocontrol agents for use in the United States.  Another plant protection program receiving increased funding will develop plant varieties inherently resistant to infectious diseases.   Other researchers would focus on livestock protection, such as projects to detect and eliminate tumor and enteric viruses in poultry.

NIFA funds extramural research projects at the states’ agricultural experiment stations, land grant universities, state-based cooperative extension system, and other research and education institutions.   Federal funds are distributed through grants and other competitive awards, and NIFA administers USDA’s primary grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.  The ASM supports the FY 2013 budget for AFRI of $325 billion, an increase of $60.5 million.  USDA identified priority areas funded in part by this increase will be developing better feedstocks for biofuel production, minimizing antibiotic resistance transmission among foodborne pathogens, and supporting additional graduate student training through the NIFA Fellows program.

Research results reported in the past year are the best argument for sufficient USDA R&D funding in FY 2013, illustrating the breadth of contributions made by USDA science: 

  • ARS scientists found that using Fourier transform infrared-attenuated total reflection (FTIR-ATR) spectroscopy can rapidly identify citrus plant leaves infected with citrus greening disease, faster and cheaper than the current DNA method.
  • Last year, USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy jointly announced they will invest up to $30 million over three to four years to support R&D in biofuels, bioenergy, and high value bio-based products.  In August, they awarded 10 university grants totaling $12.2 million to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of biofuel and bioenergy crops.
  • ARS molecular biologists are identifying genes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to improve fermentation of fiber from corn, wheat, and other plants into cellulosic ethanol during biofuel manufacture.  The genes are likely to improve the yeast’s ability to resist deleterious growth inhibitors created during acid pre-treatments.
  • Last year, USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development began construction on a university-associated ARS facility that will specialize in breeding wheat varieties resistant to stem rust disease, which threatens grain crops worldwide.
  • An ARS procedure developed to improve polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods for detecting plant pathogens has increased test sensitivity by 100- to 1000-fold.  Called Bio-PCR, it identified the bacterium responsible for Pierce’s disease of grapes in 90 percent of infected samples compared to 13 percent with conventional PCR.
  • A team of ARS scientists, screening Starmerella yeast for their ability to produce surfactant-like sophorolipids, are identifying green alternatives to the currently used petroleum-based surfactants in products like detergents and paints.

USDA Funding Protects the US Food Supply

One in six Americans becomes sick each year with foodborne illnesses that could be prevented.    USDA cooperates daily with other federal partners, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to safeguard the US food supply through prevention, public and industry education, site inspections and disease outbreak investigations.  The FY 2013 budget for food safety will continue USDA’s three part strategy to fulfill its food oversight responsibilities: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement and improving response and recovery. 

USDA scientists and inspectors are responsible for some important steps in reducing foodborne illness.  For example, USDA expects to enforce new, stricter Salmonella and Campylobacter standards in turkeys and young chickens, which could prevent up to 25,000 human illnesses annually. During 2000–2010, the agency helped achieve the national goal of reducing E. coli O157 infection rates by 50 percent. In the past 15 years, the overall rates of six foodborne infections have declined by 23 percent, according to a 2011 CDC report.  Both ARS and NIFA sponsor research on safe production, storage, processing, and handling of animal and plant products.  For instance, ARS microbiologists are studying the relationship between cattle feed containing corn byproducts of biofuel processing and the persistence of pathogenic E. coli on the animals’ hides.  Other USDA microbiologists are studying yeast extracts as an alternative to using antibiotics in organic turkey farming.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) enforces the federal standards for all meat, poultry, and processed egg products, to ensure they are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and packaged.  The FY 2013 budget proposes a decrease in FSIS discretionary funding:  at $996 million, more than $8 million below FY 2012 and $11 million less than the FY 2011 level.  Volumes of imported foods are steadily increasing and foodborne illnesses persist as major public health threats in the United States.  Approximately 8,400 FSIS employees inspect foods and production methods at more than 6,200 slaughtering and processing facilities, import houses, and other federally regulated entities involved in food production. Their workload is daunting:  for example, about 40 million cattle inspected yearly by FSIS personnel.

Conclusion

The ASM encourages Congress to increase the FY 2013 budget in support of USDA’s science and food safety programs.  USDA research in multiple agriculture sectors has pervasive impacts on our quality of life.  The USDA mission reaches far beyond its role in transforming our nation’s farms and ranches into highly productive, economically important businesses.  USDA science protects human and animal health, prevents crop losses from disease and climate changes, seeks best practices to preserve the environment, encourages innovation in valuable agriculture based products and supports new generations of agriculture scientists and educators.

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