U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 1999 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) 1999 budgets for the research programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The ASM represents scientists working in academic, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research to improve human health and the environment. Microbiological research is directly related to agriculture involving foodborne diseases, 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's mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of basic life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well being. The ASM is a member of the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM), a coalition of professional societies and organizations involved in formulating research directions and needs for agricultural research.

Agricultural research has one of the best returns on the investment of federal dollars. The ability of the United States to provide low cost, high quality food and fiber to consumers and remain competitive in the world markets depends greatly on the development of new technologies and innovations. Regrettably, federal investment in agricultural research has been stagnant for several years impeding scientific advancement and progress. Despite the recognized importance of the agricultural sector to the U.S. economy, agricultural research is nearly the lowest research investment for all federal agencies. If agriculture and agricultural exports are to continue to succeed in the United States, then it must be understood that continued, sustained federal investment in agricultural research is necessary.

Agricultural Research Service

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the principal in house physical and biological science research agency within the USDA. The ASM supports CoFARM's recommendation to increase funding for the ARS by 7 percent in FY 1999. The ASM strongly supports the President's budget request for $2.3 million to research emerging infectious diseases in plants and $3.7 million to research emerging infectious disease in animals.

The threat of new and emerging infectious diseases requires immediate attention. 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, population growth, climate, microbial evolution, animal migration, and international trade and travel are all factors in the threat of introducing new plant and animal diseases into the U.S. agriculture system. The lack of knowledge to manage effectively and control new and reemerging infectious disease often leads to very serious consequences such as reduced crop yield, and unacceptable quality. Billions of dollars are lost through trade embargoes, quarantines, and the destruction of agricultural fields to control the spread of disease. Support for research is essential to enable the United States to respond rapidly when a new disease emerges as a threat to plants, animals or to humans through animals and plants.

Additional research is needed on emerging diseases in the area of plants made transgenic for resistance to an insect (Bt) and/or resistant to herbicides (e.g. Roundup). Some of these plants are showing susceptibility to diseases, especially viruses, which may not be in their non-transgenic counterparts. Identification, transmission and management of these diseases is essential to make biotechnology applied to plants a viable industry.

Vectors of new and emerging diseases are changing (evolution) and new modes of transmission of diseases not previously recognized are occurring. Thus, the populations of vectors needs to be assessed and management techniques determined.

New technology, e.g. the polymerase chain reaction, now enables us to detect etiological agents previously ascribed to physiological problems, e.g. the class of viruses known as luteoviruses. The spread and effects of such viruses needs to be determined both for domestic and international trade.

First seen in 1993 in the United States, the High Plains Virus has spread to several states, and is being detected in other countries. Losses in corn range from about 15 to 100 percent. The disease is transmitted by a particular mite, which also transmits the virus causing wheat streak mosaic, for which no resistant germplasm is available. Moreover, the two viruses can be carried together. It is not currently known if breeding for resistance in wheat will be successful for the High Plains virus. Biotechnology approaches offer the strongest hope for imparting resistance, probably by using parts of the viruses akin to vaccination in people. Thus, imparting resistance to the genome of the plant offers a potential solution to both these serious problems. Losses have ranged in the millions, depending on weather, environment and mite populations.

Cooperative State Research and Education Service

The ASM strongly supports competitive research and believes that the federal government should provide more opportunities for scientists to compete for federal research dollars across all agencies. The National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRI) is the USDA's competitive research program. The NRI supports innovative research on key agricultural problems including food safety, animal genetics, water quality and others. The ASM urges the Committee to increase support for the NRI to a level of $155 million, $25 million above the President's recommended funding level. ASM recommends that the additional $25 million in requested funding above the President's funding level be programmed to support competitive research to solve the problems associated with the safety of the nation's food supply. Increased funding for the NRI would strengthen the commitment of the USDA in the competitive merit review process, provide funds for fundamental research with long term potential for new discoveries, and better sustain key areas of basic research.

USDA Food Safety Initiative

Within the President's Food Safety Initiative, relatively little funding is appropriated to academic research where much of the infrastructure is presently in place for obtaining timely answers and solutions to the critical food safety issues facing the nation. Only through the USDA National Research Initiative is funding identified for competitive grants that may be available to academia. The amount of NRI funding is woefully short of the amount needed to provide solutions to the multitude of microbiological problems associated with foods such as carriage of pathogens by farm animals. A proposed increase of $3 million to total $5-6 million for food safety research is incredibly small considering the magnitude of the problem. An investment of an additional $25 million annually in academic food safety research would help to address the important food safety issues. Critical areas that need to be addressed to enhance the microbiological safety of foods include:

Determine the factors and processing steps that lead to contamination of food products.

Reduce/eliminate foodborne pathogens of livestock and poultry manure.

Reduce/eliminate carriage of E. coli O157:H7 and enterohemorrhagic E. coli by cattle.

Reduce/eliminate carriage of Campylobacter jejuni by poultry.

Develop effective critical control points to reduce/eliminate foodborne pathogens on produce during production, processing and in the home.

Develop practical, innovative approaches for treatment of irrigation water for use on food crops.

Using risk assessment, develop scientifically based microbiological criteria for foods to facilitate global exchange of foods. (Essential to this point is the development of suitable infectious dose data that are relevant to humans.)

Develop effective critical control points for sprouts (alfalfa, bean, and broccoli) during production.

Develop a practical scientifically based approach to educate consumers on food safety issues.

Develop real-time, sensitive assays for detecting foodborne pathogens in processing facilities and in foods.

Determine mechanisms of resistance of foodborne pathogens to the traditional preservation techniques and antibiotics.

USDA's National Food Genome Strategy

The Administration has developed a new program to study the genetic makeup of food including the genomes of plants and animals in an effort to discover ways to improve the safety of the nation's food supply. The ASM believes that microorganisms should be included in this important study as well. Microbes are involved in all aspects of agriculture; everything from pest controls to the spread of disease in plants and animals and the infection of the food supply. Studying the genomes of agricultural microbes could lead to the development of new technologies to provide better pest control to protect the nation's crops, to reduce the incidence of plant and animal disease, and to ensure a safer food supply. While the USDA plans to use some of the funds to study microbes, the ASM recommends that greater federal resources be allocated to study microbial genomes in the context of the National Food Genome Strategy within USDA. The ASM urges Congress and the USDA to provide funds to research microbial genomes as they relate to agricultural problems and solutions.

In addition, the USDA should collaborate with other agencies such as the Department of Energy's microbial genome program which looks into energy related microbes and does not study human pathogens. This interagency effort will provide a comprehensive study of microbial genomes maximizing efficiency without duplicating scientific effort.

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is mandated by law to regulate and enforce laboratory animal care. APHIS must be in a position to verify that it has conducted adequate and timely inspections of research facilities involved in animal research to allay public concern. The ASM supports the President's request of $10 million to fund the animal care program within APHIS.