The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research and education programs. Agricultural research is vitally important for the improvement of animal and plant health, food safety, and the environment. In the September 2007 report, “Economic Returns to Public Agriculture Research,” the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) reviewed over 35 economic studies of the social rate of return to investments in agriculture. The report shows the average rate of return on public investment in agriculture research is 45 percent per every dollar invested. These returns are shared by all levels of the agricultural continuum, from producers to consumers.
The ASM is concerned with the President’s FY 2009 funding proposal for the National Research Initiative (NRI). The NRI is the USDA’s competitive, peer-reviewed grants program that supports extramural research. USDA research efforts in food safety, animal disease, alternative fuels, the environment, and other strategic areas are producing tangible returns on federal investments. Although the FY 2009 proposal provides an increase of $67 million over FY 2008, it directs $61 million of the increase to the transferred integrated programs and biofuel research, providing the NRI with an actual increase of only $6 million for its base programs if the integrated programs are flat funded.
We urge Congress to provide a 10 percent increase for the NRI in FY 2009. The ASM recommends $270 million for the NRI in FY 2009. This recommended funding level will provide a 10 percent, or $19 million, increase for the NRI base programs, and cover the directed funding included in the FY 2009 Administration request of $42 million for the proposed transfer of integrated programs, and $19 million for bioenergy research.
The ASM is also concerned with the President’s FY 2009 requested 10 percent cut for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) from FY 2008. The ARS is USDA’s primary intramural research program, which conducts research to develop practical solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority including fundamental, long-term, high-risk research that the private sector will not do. The ASM urges Congress to provide at least $1.185 billion for the ARS in FY 2009, the same level as FY 2008.
Strong support for the NRI and ARS is needed to provide the fundamental research essential to creating efficient and effective technologies for the protection of human health and improving the safety of agricultural products. This research is critical to developing the interventions needed to substantially reduce the 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States that occur each year. Changes in society, technology, our environment, and microorganisms themselves are affecting the occurrence of foodborne bacterial, viral, and mycotic diseases. For example, E. coli O157 first emerged in the 1980s and spread through complex ecologies to contaminate a growing variety of foods. Multi-drug resistant Salmonella are a growing challenge to human and animal health. Infections of animals like anthrax, leptospirosis, and brucellosis can spread to humans by direct contact and by less obvious routes. Microbial adaptation is leading to the introduction through animals and foods of new or previously unrecognized human pathogens.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 76 million people suffer from foodborne disease per year, and in 2006, approximately 1,250 foodborne disease outbreaks were reported. Investment in research is necessary for improving the identification of these pathogens, for developing a better understanding of the pathways by which these pathogens make people and animals sick, and using this information to improve prevention. Additionally, research finds ways to develop and evaluate better methods for surveillance, investigation, and prevention.
As microbes adapt, there is concern that some food-borne bacterial pathogens may become resistant to certain antimicrobial agents. It is necessary to have continued support for antimicrobial resistance monitoring programs, such as the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) and the Collaboration on Animal Health Food Safety Epidemiology (CAHFSE) program to generate data that will guide the development of appropriate interventions in the food production chain to minimize and contain antimicrobial resistant bacterial pathogens in the food supply.
Through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the government is ensuring the nation’s food quality, providing safety interventions, and contributing to pathogen reduction. The ASM supports the President’s FY 2009 requested increases for FSIS and APHIS of 2 percent and 6.3 percent above FY 2008, respectively.
In addition to greater investment in research, it is important that the USDA collaborate with other agencies, such as the CDC, FDA, NIH, EPA, and NSF to ensure that the best research is funded and contributes to the food safety strategies of all the federal agencies.
Agricultural research is a critical component of discovering biobased products such as polymers, lubricants, solvents, composites, and energy. The ARS and NRI address research related to biobased products that focuses on developing biofuels and bioenergy; better, more efficient, and environmentally friendly agricultural materials; bio-based products that replace petroleum-based products; and new opportunities to meet environmental needs. These efforts include developing, modifying, and utilizing new and advanced technologies to convert plant and animal commodities and by-products to new products and by developing energy crops as well as new crops to meet niche market opportunities. Microbial research is essential to understanding and creating efficient biomass conversion and production methods, to developing new crops from which environmentally friendly and sustainable products such as paints and coatings can be made, and to producing fuels and lubricants, new fibers, natural rubber, and biobased polymers from vegetable oils, proteins, and starches.
Most of the world’s energy needs are currently met through the combustion of fossil fuels. With projected increases in global energy needs, more sustainable methods for energy production must be developed, and production of greenhouse gases will need to be reduced. There is continued need for fundamental microbial research that will improve biomass characteristics, biomass yield, and sustainability; energy sources that are environmentally friendly and renewable; and that will enhance our understanding of the impact that removing biomass for energy and other products has on the sustainability of soils and water.
As the development and use of biofuels and bioenergy expands, other aspects of food production will be affected such as increased corn prices for livestock production and decreased exports of agricultural commodities. The ASM urges the USDA to expand further research programs on alternative bioenergy production such as cellulose-based fermentation that would identify new resources and methods that would not compete with the food system. These fermentation methods will require increased investment in identifying and understanding novel microbial pathways for cellulosic degradation.
Greater support for the NRI and ARS is essential to address the challenges of the emerging biobased products industry with programs that support research, development, and demonstration. The ASM also encourages greater collaboration between and support for the USDA and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science on biomass research.
The Microbial Genome Sequencing Program has been supported jointly by the NRI and the National Science Foundation (NSF) since Fiscal Year 2001. The program supports high-throughput sequencing of the genomes of microorganisms and the development and implementation strategies, tools, and technologies to make currently available genome sequences more valuable to the user community. The availability of genome sequences provides the foundation for understanding how microorganisms function and live, and how they interact with their environments and with other organisms. The sequences are available to and used by the investigator community to address issues of scientific and societal importance including: novel aspects of microbial biochemistry, physiology, metabolism, development and cellular biology; the diversity and the roles microorganisms play in complex ecosystems and in global geochemical cycles; the impact that microorganisms have on the productivity and sustainability of agriculture and natural resources (e.g., forestry, soil and water), and on the safety and quality of the nation's food supply; and the organization and evolution of microbial genomes, and the mechanisms of transmission, exchange and reshuffling of genetic information. This genomic information is also important for the development of new strategies for converting cellulosic biofuel materials into useful and cost-effective energy sources.
In FY 2008, as a result of a reduction in funding by the NSF, this program received a 30 percent cut, to a total of $10 million. The ASM urges Congress to increase support for the USDA genomics initiative to restore it to full funding.
Since soil sustainability is intrinsically linked to the microbial health of the soil, and the health of soil can directly affect its ability to filter and clean water, a greater understanding of soil microbiology is essential to ensuring sustainability and protecting the nation’s natural resources, soil, water, and the food supply.
The NRI is currently supporting research that will potentially lead to an effective treatment to entrap, remove, or inactivate cryptosporidia oocysts, which persist in soil and water. Cryptosporidia are a potentially fatal protozoan that infects humans, livestock, and wildlife. When an effective control system is developed, it may prove to be effective in dealing with a variety of pathogens, including Salmonella, enteric parasites, and viruses. The ASM urges Congress to increase support for the NRI to continue and expand on opportunities in soil processes research that are critical for human and animal health and environmental well-being.
The ASM urges Congress to increase research funding for the USDA. The ASM is concerned that we are losing ground in the important field of agricultural research. Research in the biological and agricultural sciences is vital to the nation’s ability to meet current and future challenges ranging from the food supply and safety, to cost-effective solutions for energy and environmental challenges.
The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2009 appropriation for the USDA.