U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2003 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprised of more than 42,000 members, appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research and education programs.

The ASM represents scientists who work in academic, medical, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide and are involved in research to improve human health and the environment.Microbiological research is directly related to agriculture involving foodborne diseases, bioterrorism, new and emerging plant and animal diseases, soil erosion and soil biology, agricultural biotechnology, and the development of new agricultural products and processes.The ASM is a member of the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM), which represents scientific societies and organizations involved in formulating research directions and needs for agricultural research.

The U.S. agricultural system is one of the most productive and efficient in the world, due in part to continued investments in science.Agricultural research has led to many advances, including biotechnology, which contributes to a more abundant and nutritious food supply and a more environmentally friendly food production process, while reducing agriculture's reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides.Unfortunately, public investment in agricultural research has been stagnant for several years impeding scientific advancement and progress, despite the recognized importance of the agriculture sector in the economy.According to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Science Resources Studies, agricultural research made up only 4 percent of all public funds devoted to basic research and only 2 percent of total R&D expenditures for FY 2000.

U.S. agriculture, however, faces an array of challenges, including the threats of new and reemerging diseases, agroterrorism, and public concern about food security and its impact on the environment.It is critical to increase the visibility and investment in research to respond to these challenges.The ASM encourages the Subcommittee to build upon the renewed focus on agricultural research supported in the Administration's fiscal year 2003 USDA budget.This will not only benefit U.S. agriculture but also the health and well-being of every American.

Infectious Diseases in Plants and Animals

It is important to recognize a growing threat to the U.S. agricultural system that requires immediate attention - the threat of new and emerging infectious diseases.Like the human population, U.S. agriculture is also experiencing severe problems caused by new and emerging infectious diseases in plants and animals.Changes in agricultural practices, agroterrorism, population growth, climate, microbial evolution, animal migration, and international trade and travel are all factors in introducing new plant and animal diseases into the U.S. agriculture system and natural resources, such as oak trees in California.The lack of knowledge to manage effectively and control new and reemerging infectious diseases often leads to very serious consequences from lost productivity from quarantines to embargoes, and the destruction of plants and animals to control the spread of diseases.For example, citrus canker has cost millions in tree destruction in Florida.Research, monitoring, surveillance, and new sources of resistant genetic material, including the use of biotechnology, may enable continued growth of citrus trees commercially and by homeowners.New technologies, e.g. the polymerase chain reaction, now enables us to detect minute quantities of etiological agents, including those previously ascribed to physiological problems in plants, such as the class of viruses known as luteoviruses.

Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service

In 1989 the Board on Agriculture of the National Research Council (NRC) recommended that public investment through competitive research grants in agriculture, food, and the environment be made a national priority.To address this monumental task, Congress (1991) created the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRI) in the hope of generating new knowledge and reinvigorating research in agriculture, food, and environmental science (National Research Initiative: a Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research, NRC, 2000).The ASM strongly supports competitive peer reviewed research that is open to all the nation's scientists.

The ASM urges the Subcommittee to fund the NRI at the President's requested $240 million budget.This level of funding would strengthen the commitment of the USDA to the competitive merit review process, provide funds for fundamental research with long-term potential for new discoveries, and better sustain human resource opportunities in agricultural research.Despite previous funding levels, the NRI has yielded extensive scientific advancements that are comparable to some of those made at other agencies that fund peer-reviewed research. For instance:

  • Microbial pathogens represent the most serious contamination problem facing the U.S. food supply.This threat has expanded to include the intentional release of food/animal/plant pathogens into the U.S. agricultural system.Research supported by the NRI has led to the development of immunomicrobial biosensors for the detection of Salmonella in foods.Research will continue to expand this technology to include Toxoplasma) and Escherichia coli O157:H7.This technology is the foundation of future advances in on-site, on-demand analyses of agricultural products.
  • Economic losses of animals and attendant pain and suffering can occur due to diseases, such as Marek's disease virus (MDV), a herpesvirus, in chickens and avian pneumovirus (APV) in turkeys.These diseases are being examined at the genetic level to understand pathogenic properties that would be candidate disease intervention targets.

Agricultural Research Service

The ASM recommends that the Subcommittee build upon the Administrations proposed $1 billion budget for FY 2003, which is a $223 million decrease from FY 2002.The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the principal in-house research agency in USDA in the area of natural and biological sciences.The imminent threats of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and foot-and-mouth disease in animals and plum pox in plants are examples requiring new and extensive research.Agroterrorism also presents a serious threat to the American agricultural system and requires a renewed focus on animal and plant pathogens.Therefore, the ASM recommends that increased funding in this area be distributed equally between plant (emerging and exotic diseases of plants ($5.4 million FY '03 increase)) and animal research (emerging, reemerging, and exotic diseases of animals ($8 million FY '03 increase)) at $10 million each for FY 2003.This increase will allow ARS to focus on improving rapid and accurate detection systems for animal and plant diseases and pathogens and effective treatment protocols.Research will also be directed to developing diagnostic and vaccine technologies that will ultimately improve the nation's ability to control disease outbreaks, and mitigate the threats of tomorrow to the nation's animal, plant, and grain products.

The ASM also believes continued support of agricultural genomic research is a critical component of our nation's research enterprise.Increasingly, environmental factors are requiring new and novel solutions to plant production, protection (pest), nutritional content and food safety that are being addressed through genomic research.The ASM endorses the Administration's increase ($6.9 million) for genomic research, which includes funds for microbe sequencing and identifying genes that affect resistance, reproduction, nutrition, and other important traits.

The ASM is pleased to see the Administration continues to recognize the pivotal role ARS will play in safeguarding U.S. agriculture.The Administration proposes $5 million for biosecurity needs within the ARS.This money will modestly fund research into new tools for identifying specific genetic attributes of a pathogen, which will improve global disease and pest surveillance, as well as enhancing U.S. food security and its appeal in the global marketplace.The ASM highly recommends increasing funding in this pivotal area in the FY 2003 budget.

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

U.S. agriculture is uniquely vulnerable, due to its size and variety of products, to infectious diseases and pests.The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has the critical role of policing the U.S. infrastructure that is in place to prevent, diagnose and respond to these threats.The U.S. needs to continue to upgrade its biosafety systems to prevent foreign animal and plant diseases from entering the domestic agriculture system.This sentinel network requires new, accurate and cost effective diagnostic tools and updated information technology.The ASM is pleased that the Administration's budget reflects APHIS's daunting task of combating animal and plant diseases by allocating additional resources ($48 million) for monitoring and responding.The ASM is also encouraged by the Administration's total funding for APHIS at $1 billion, which is level with FY 2002.While this amount is not an increase over FY 2001 or 2002, it does reflect the rapidly changing needs of APHIS and its role in addressing animal and plant health monitoring and outbreak management.

Food Safety

Foodborne illness continues to pose a major public health problem in the U.S.The ASM recommends that the Subcommittee provide additional funding to USDA to expand food safety research.In a recent report it was estimated foodborne diseases cost the U.S. billions in medical costs and lost productivity (salmonellosis, only 1 of many foodborne infections, have been estimated to cost $1 billion/year) and an estimated 76 million illnesses a year (CDC 2000).Further reducing foodborne illness requires not only preventing contamination through improved processing and inspection, but also educating consumers to avoid unsafe consumption choices and to prepare food safely to avoid cross-contamination.The 1997 Food Safety Initiative recognizes this with funding for a national media campaign to encourage safe food handling.

Microorganisms continue to adapt to their changing environments and begin to "out smart" current techniques to control their presence.Many foodborne microbes have developed resistance to conventional food preservation and disinfection techniques and continue to proliferate.It is also important to note that the diversity of microorganisms affecting food safety changes with time, processing techniques, location and other factors.To illustrate the growing problem, one need only examine the number of USDA and FDA regulated food product recalls because of harmful bacteria.In 1995 the USDA and FDA recalled 265 products due to microbial hazards; in 1999, the number of recalls rose to 337.

Microbial Genomics

Microbes are involved in all aspects of agriculture, from beneficial uses of microbes in food (i.e., yogurt, cheese, and bread), to pest controls, to the spread of disease in plants and animals, and the contamination of the food supply.Studying the genomes of agricultural microbes is expected to enable development of new technologies to provide improved foods and better pathogen control to protect the nation's crops, to reduce the incidence of plant and animal disease, and to ensure a safer food supply.Thus, ASM is highly supportive of microbial genomics through the NRI program.Microbial sequencing is also expected to lead to speedier and more accurate identification of microbes, identify targets for intervention, as well as potential new antimicrobial agents.Coordination and cooperation with the National Science Foundation in this area is particularly promising.In conjunction with an interagency working group on microbes that focuses on sequencing and bioinformatics.

Biobased Products

The ASM continues to support the promising research to accelerate the conversion of agricultural materials and byproducts into biofuels, such as soybean oil conversion into (bio)diesel fuel.Such scientific advancements in biobased product research have the added benefit of enhancing farm income, strengthening U.S. energy security, rural revitalization, and environmental stewardship. Current scientific estimates suggest that energy production from biofuels could generate up to 10% to 15% of the nation's energy needs. ASM believes agriculture can play a positive role in achieving U.S. energy security and encourages the Subcommittee to consider the benefit biofuels represent to the entire agricultural and consumer community.

Global Competitiveness

Recent adoption of the Uruguay Round, which confines the use of import restrictions on agriculture products of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pose great challenges to American agriculture.While domestic advances in agricultural technology, including biotechnology, have achieved great strides in food production, safety, and nutrition, they will also provide similar advances to other nations.Agricultural competitiveness in the global economy depends upon the ability of producers and processors to make measurable production and quality gains while providing desirable products that are reliable and safe.Agricultural research in food safety, production systems, and biotechnology will be key instruments in maintaining America's agricultural competitiveness, while providing food security.

The ASM encourages Congress give high priority to agricultural research for FY 2003.Many of today's scientific achievements leading to the development of biotechnology, genetically modified foods, improved crops and plant-based products and an improved environment have their roots in the basic research conducted by the USDA.The future holds many challenges from the monitoring of the ecological impact of transgenic plants to research in plant and animal diseases that is requisite to combating agricultural bioterrorism.We urge the Administration and Congress to assist the USDA to address these issues.

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 congressional process.