March 22, 2013 - U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2014

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 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 37,000 members.

USDA’s food safety and science programs ensure the quality and quantity of the US food supply, as well as safeguard plant and animal health. Both the nation’s public health and its economic well-being are rooted in agriculture. USDA estimates that the agricultural sector accounts for 1 in 12 jobs in the country and US agricultural exports consistently exceed imports. In FY 2012, agriculture exports were valued at nearly $136 billion, and US production continues to expand through innovation and technology.

There are few aspects of life as basic as adequate, wholesome food. The actual outcomes of USDA’s mandated cuts are still unknown, but clearly the USDA food safety and research activities are essential, and should not be jeopardized.

Agriculture is challenged by food demand for the growing global population, climate variability, food safety threats, demands for bioenergy and emerging plant and animal diseases. These challenges have grown increasingly dependent on cutting edge science and technology. Last year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) evaluated the future of the entire US research enterprise, reinforcing the importance of robust research and development (R&D) and applauded the tradition of agriculture research and education initiated by the 1862 Morrill Act that created land grant colleges. For over a century, federally funded basic and applied research has helped transform US agriculture into a production powerhouse that feeds not only our nation but also those who import our agriculture products. The report also points to agriculture research and the USDA’s own laboratories, source of new products, jobs, and industries, as exemplifying the practical benefits and importance of fundamental research.

PCAST released another report in December focused on agricultural preparedness and the agriculture research enterprise. The report concluded that “our Nation’s agricultural research enterprise is not prepared to meet the challenges that US agriculture faces in the 21st century.” Agriculture research is a wise investment in the future, generating at least $10 in benefits for every dollar invested. Unfortunately, federal funding of agriculture research has stagnated at roughly the same level for the past 30 years.   The PCAST report also warned that “looking to the future, US agriculture must continue to be the backbone for the emerging US bioeconomy, helping the Nation meet its need for sustainable sources of energy and materials, and simultaneously contributing to the prosperity of rural communities. A vibrant US agriculture enterprise is paramount to the future well-being of the Nation.”

USDA Research Promotes Agriculture Production and Protects Public Health

Solving large scale problems like keeping contaminated food out of the US farm-to-table supply system requires a long term mindset and adequate and consistent federal funding. The ASM has consistently advocated for stronger USDA science funding. It seems prudent to protect the nation’s $157 billion agriculture, fishing and forestry industries with solid science and research. We are especially concerned that the current fiscal uncertainties might financially degrade the USDA’s microbiology related projects, which range from food safety and bioenergy production to plant and animal diseases. Over the past year, these projects resulted in the first broad spectrum bacterial-toxin insecticide in 50 years and the genetic sequencing of citrus rootstock with resistance to major citrus diseases. These are just two examples of new USDA funded tools that boost domestic agriculture productivity.

The USDA is the largest federal supporter of agriculture R&D by both university and government researchers. In 2009, the USDA funded more than half of the total agriculture R&D at US universities and awarded $1.4 billion through its extramural programs. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) distributes grants to colleges and universities for research, extension and education activities. The agriculture focused PCAST report recommended the “creation of a new innovation ecosystem for agriculture” with greater federal investment in agricultural research and an additional $700 million annually. Such an investment would, among other initiatives, increase the USDA’s support for competitive extramural grants from $264 million to $500 million per year and appropriate $150 million annually for at least five years to create six multidisciplinary innovation institutes. In light of the current fiscal environment, ASM urges Congress to fund AFRI with at least $325 million in FY 2014, the same amount as the Administrations FY 2013 request, and supported by agricultural sciences coalitions.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the premier competitive grants program for fundamental and applied research, extension and education in support of agriculture and food research, was created in 2008 in response to public requests for an increase in scientifically rigorous agriculture research programs. Administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), AFRI has been authorized at $700 million annually since 2008, but in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 only received $264 million while research proposals exceeded $4 billion.

USDA intramural funds are allocated primarily among the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS) and Forest Service. Created in 1953 as USDA’s principal scientific research entity, ARS is a cornerstone of the agency’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area. More than 8,000 ARS employees, including 2,000 full time scientists, conduct research at more than 100 laboratories in the United States and several other countries. The ARS Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2012 through 2017 comprised multiple action plans focused on USDA’s agency wide research priorities, which currently include: global food security, food safety, human nutrition, climate change and bioenergy.

USDA funded researchers regularly make discoveries that strengthen US agriculture through innovation. Recent microbiology related examples show the diversity of USDA research and add value to a major sector of the US economy:

  • ARS microbiologists are refining liquid culture fermentation methodology to increase laboratory yields of insect-killing fungi, for potential large-scale production as biopesticides. Less expensive than current practices, the new method also is more amenable to cultivating a wider range of the fungi which penetrate insect pests and kill them within days.
  • ARS scientists are developing rapid diagnostic tests for West Nile fever and Rift Valley fever using surface enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) technology. The assays will eventually be adapted as field testing tools to aid veterinarians on site. The new technology is more sensitive and detects more pathogens then currently available field tests.    
  • Last fall, NIFA contributed to the 12 new grants awarded through the joint National Science Foundation-National Institutes of Health program called Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID). They include university studies on ocean ecology’s impacts on infectious marine disease and studies on the emergence of babesiosis in the United States.
  • ARS microbiologists discovered that bacterial contamination in poultry cages can be eliminated by treating washed cages for 15 minutes with heated forced air, preventing cross contamination between infected and healthy birds. Any decrease in contamination has considerable public health and economic benefits. Salmonella contaminated eggs and poultry are a leading cause of illness in the United States, and the US poultry industry is the world’s largest producer with the total farm value of poultry producting in excess of $20 billion per year.

USDA Funding Ensures Food Safety and Security

Our food supply systems are uniquely complex, immense in volume, diversity and monetary value. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) enforces federal standards for domestic and imported meats, poultry and processed egg products to ensure that they are safe, wholesome, properly labeled and packaged. More than 8,000 FSIS employees inspect food and methods at more than 6,000 registered food related facilities. The amount of food to inspect far exceeds FSIS’s resources to physically inspect and sample. US producers raise about 35 million heads of livestock and over 2 billion poultry annually. US beef consumption exceeds 25 billion pounds annually while poultry meat production is more than 43 billion pounds per year.

USDA inspections, regulatory actions and industry guidelines must be supported by the best available science based testing and assessment tools, many of which are developed by USDA funded researchers. Funding for USDA science and food safety programs builds technical expertise throughout the agency benefiting the public. An example is NIFA’s recent award of nearly $15 million for 17 extramural research projects to protect food from microbial and chemical contamination, with a primary focus of controlling and preventing Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry flocks and poultry products.

The ASM encourages Congress to increase the FY 2014 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.