April 3, 2014 - U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2015

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science society with over 39,000 members, wishes to submit the following statement in support of increased funding in FY 2015 for research and education programs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Funding for USDA research invests in sectors important to public health and the economy, including food safety and food security, production sustainability, bioenergy sources, plant and animal health and the environment. The ASM recommends funding USDA agriculture and science programs to the highest level possible in FY 2015.

Agriculture is important to health and the environment and yields broad economic benefits. The range of industries related to agriculture combines for nearly 5 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP). In 2012, over 16 million jobs were related to agriculture, over 9 percent of total employment (2.6 million were direct on the farm employment). In recent years, farm asset values have surged upward, while agriculture exports have reached historical highs. At a time when US global competitiveness is being challenged, agriculture exports embody productivity and innovation in the United States. In FY 2013, exports reached over $140 billion, exceeding the previous record of $137 billion in FY 2011. The average volume of exports has increased by nearly four million tons annually over the past five years. Farm exports also support about one million jobs in the country.

USDA productivity statistics show that total farm production more than doubled between 1948 and 2011, with total output growing at an average annual rate of 1.49 percent. Almost all growth was due to increased productivity, much of it fueled by research. Although USDA research receives considerably less than 5 percent of the USDA budget, USDA’s research support has consistently generated high returns.

USDA Research

USDA research interconnects issues of global food supply and security, climate and energy needs, sustainable use of natural resources, nutrition and childhood obesity, food safety and consumer education. USDA’s Research, Education and Economics Action Plan (REE) focuses on a number of efforts using the microbiological sciences to mitigate animal and plant diseases, to reduce foodborne illnesses, to identify bioenergy sources and to protect the environment. Projects involve both national and international collaborations and research results are regularly shared with producers, regulatory agencies, consumers, industry and commodity organizations.

USDA support for research has significant economic consequences. In 2013, the World Organization for Animal Health upgraded the United States’ risk classification for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to negligible risk, expanding market potential (exports of US origin beef and beef products exceed $5 billion). In December, USDA launched its new, unified emergency response framework to address citrus greening disease, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), a serious threat to the $3 billion plus citrus industry. This will coordinate HLB resources, share information and develop operational strategies on a national scale with multiple stakeholders. USDA science underlies numerous policy and regulatory actions like food recalls or guidelines to food processors, exerting significant economic and societal influence within and beyond the agriculture sector.

USDA supports innovation through its intramural research, extramural university research grants, financial awards to small businesses and partnerships with government, academia and industry. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) serves as the in house research agency, with more than 2,200 scientists and a portfolio of about 800 research projects divided among 18 programs. Extramural research is supported by NIFA, while the Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service contribute interdisciplinary analyses that guide USDA involvement in agriculture.

When Congress created NIFA in 2008, it emphasized the national importance of food and agriculture sciences. NIFA supports research, education and extension programs in the land grant university system, primarily through competitive grants distributed by NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The ASM urges Congress to fund AFRI with at least $360 million in FY 2015 as part of a sustained commitment to agriculture research.

NIFA also administers USDA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which since 1983 has awarded more than 2,000 grants to US owned small businesses. AFRI supports six priority areas: 1) plant health and production; 2) animal health and production; 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.

Food Safety and Food Security

USDA contributes to safeguarding the Nation’s food supply and ensuring food security through adequate wholesome foods. Both ARS and NIFA programs fund research to reduce the approximately 48 million foodborne illnesses annually, which cost the economy billions of dollars each year. Working from field offices, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates the supply of meat, poultry and egg products, and is responsible for recalling contaminated foods. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) protects the health of animals and plants that are important to the food supply, public health and economy. Much of this collective effort targets pathogenic microorganisms transmitted through food, by identifying microbial threats, studying basic biology of foodborne pathogens, developing technologies for contaminant detection and devising intervention and prevention strategies along the farm to table continuum.

In 2013, USDA researchers reported on food safety studies that included mapping microbes in cattle feedlot soil, a joint risk assessment conducted with the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate listeriosis in retail delis,and an FSIS developed Salmonella Action Plan that outlines the steps needed against Salmonella bacteria in meat and poultry products, the most pressing problem FSIS faces. Every year, there are an estimated 1.3 million illnesses that can be attributed to Salmonella. In large part through USDA efforts, there has been progress: Salmonella rates in young chickens have dropped over 75 percent since 2006. The listeriosis study, which is the first of its kind, concluded that multiple interventions are required to prevent the often fatal infection by Listeria bacteria and thus reduce the 1,600 illnesses that occur annually.

Animal and Plant Health

Last year, APHIS transferred one million doses of Classical Swine Fever (CSF) vaccine to Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Safety. ARS scientists also genetically altered the CSF virus toward developing better vaccines and invented a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to detect the virus. Although the United States has been CSF free for over 30 years, these actions recognized the globalization of agriculture products, as well as the crucial role played by science and technology in protecting the public. USDA funded research on animal and plant diseases reported in 2013 includes:

  • ARS scientists studying foot and mouth disease (FMD) identified a DNA sequence in FMD virus that, when removed, permits pathogens to still multiply in cell culture but the viruses are no longer virulent, suggesting a new approach to vaccine development. Researchers also created a new animal cell line used to rapidly detect FMD virus in field samples, the first capable of identifying all seven FMD serotypes. They incorporated FMD receptor genes cloned from cattle tissue into an established cell line.
  • Using a protein interaction reporter (PIR) technology developed by USDA, for the first time researchers have mapped protein structures known as virions that help plant viruses move from plants to insects, through the insects and back into plants. The new technology could lead to methods disrupting plant disease transmission by insects.
  • More specific testing for Johne’s disease in cattle will be possible with the first discovery of an antibody that binds only to the causative agent, Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP). The USDA patented antibody will improve diagnostic testing for a disease that costs the US dairy industry more than $220 million each year.
  • Plant geneticists developed new disease resistant pea plants to protect against common root rot of legumes, a fungal disease caused by Aphanomyces euteiches that can lead to crop losses of 20–100 percent. Others bred a wheat cultivar with innate resistance to multiple fungal diseases. Of particular concern is stripe rust (fungus Puccinia striiformis) which has caused crop losses of up to 40 percent in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Adding nickel and phosphite to an existing fungicide spray regimen improves control of the fungus (Fusicladium effusum) causing pecan scab, the most destructive disease of pecan in the southeastern United States. The new information is timely as the scab fungus is developing resistance to some currently used fungicides.
  • Exposing citrus seedlings to a minimum of 48 hours of temperatures of 104 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit significantly reduces and often eliminates HLB infection, according to USDA field trials. The finding suggests practical measures to slow spread of citrus greening disease.

Biocontrol and Bioenergy

In recent years, USDA has intensified its research on renewable energy, natural resources and environmental issues. Microorganisms have been particularly useful in studies of bioenergy and biocontrol, including the following examples:

  • The fungus Myrothecium verrucaria, which naturally attacks the weed Palmer amaranth, is being studied as a possible biocontrol agent against the weed, which can grow two inches a day and crowd out commercial crops. The southern weed is acquiring resistance to glyphosate herbicides, and the ARS reported research is the first showing the fungus’ bioherbicidal action against a weed species with glyphosate resistance.
  • ARS field trials are assessing effectiveness of spraying avocado trees with foam that contains insect killing fungi against ambrosia beetles, wood boring pests that threaten the nation's $322 million avocado crop. Earlier lab studies used bioassays to genetically confirm the ability of the fungi to infect and kill the beetles. In those tests, more than 95 percent of beetles exposed to the fungi died.
  • Pathogen carrying house flies are being deliberately infected in lab studies with salivary gland hypertrophy virus (SGHV), member of a newly discovered family of viruses called Hytrosaviridae, which stops flies from reproducing.

Bioenergy strategies commonly rely upon fuels converted from widely available biomass like grasses, cereal grains or tree cellulose. Agriculture clearly plays an important role in renewable energy and USDA’s biofuels portfolio includes both intramural and extramural projects. In November, for example, USDA awarded nearly $10 million to a consortium of academic, industry and government organizations across several western states, to evaluate insect killed trees in the Rocky Mountains as a bioenergy feedstock. Since 1996, pine and spruce bark beetles have devastated over 42 million acres of western U.S. forests. The consortium will explore use of scalable, on site thermochemical conversion technologies to better access the beetle killed trees. At ARS, molecular biologists recently created a new strain of yeast that can break down and ferment sugars in corn cobs after xylose has been extracted for other commercial uses, previously impossible with yeasts inhibited by processes required. Since 2006, NIFA has collaborated with the Department of Energy in a joint grant program to improve biomass for biofuels, intent on increasing plant yield, quality and adaptability to harsher environments.

The ASM encourages Congress to increase the FY 2015 budget to the highest amount possible in support of USDA’s science, research and food safety programs. USDA funded research is critical to the health of our nation’s food and agriculture industries as well as the global economy. 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.