U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2004 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) 2004 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, the environment, and agriculture. Microbiological research related to agriculture is important to understanding 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 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 and supports the recommendation to increase the USDA's entire research portfolio.

Advances in agricultural research continue to allow the U.S. to produce agricultural goods that are unrivaled in the world today. However, U.S. agriculture faces new challenges, including the threats of new and reemerging diseases, climate change, public concern about food security and its impact on the environment and fears about agroterrorism. Unfortunately, public 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 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 in FY 2000. Furthermore, indirect costs associated with research are not at prevailing negotiated rates and are adversely affecting the direction of research. This is and will lead to unintended consequences in research priority setting in recipient institutions.

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. With the advent of genomics, a critical research need in agriculture, we have entered a new era of scientific discovery in the agricultural field.

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 2004 USDA budget. This will not only benefit U.S. agriculture but also the health and well-being of every American. Many health related conditions are due to poor nutrition and lack of understanding the old adage - you are what you eat. Major health care costs could be reduced if the American public were educated more in food nutrition and health.

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, 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 and predicted soybean rust. 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

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 and scientific fields. 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. The NRC recommendation became the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRI), which supports fundamental research on key agricultural problems including food safety, plant and animal genetics, and water quality (National Research Initiative: a Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research, NRC, 2000). The NRI enables USDA to develop new partnerships with other Federal agencies (e.g., the National Science Foundation: The Microbe Project) that advance the agricultural science enterprise.

The ASM commends the Administration and Congress for recognizing the funding gap in competitive, peer-reviewed research in its FY 2003 appropriations for the NRI ($167 million). The ASM supports additional funding for the NRI that will encourage agricultural science to tackle the many research needs in today's agriculture, such as, expanded research in microbial genomics, allergens in food, pharmaceutical and industrial products arising from biotechnology, and the possibility of agroterrorism as we face the threat of biological weapons.

The ASM urges the Subcommittee to fund the NRI at the President's requested $200 million budget for FY 2004. This level of funding ensures the commitment of the USDA to the competitive merit review process, provides funds for fundamental research with long-term potential for new discoveries, and improves human resource opportunities in agricultural research. 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:

      One of the most challenging bacterial diseases in cattle causes a wasting, chronic diarrhea. The genome of Mycobacterium paratuberculosis was recently sequenced, years ahead of predicted schedule. Specific regions contributing to disease were identified and are now being tested in diagnostic tests. These genes and their products may also be the missing links for an effective vaccine.

      Food safety is a continuing challenge. Millions of foodborne illnesses occur yearly, including cases associated with the consumption of raw fruits and vegetables. These notoriously difficult to treat products are being evaluated by mild heat treatments to determine efficacy in producing safer and longer-lasting fresh products.


Agricultural Research Service

The ASM recommends that the Subcommittee build upon the Administration's proposed $1 billion budget for FY 2004, which is an $18 million decrease from FY 2003. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the principal in-house research agency in the area of natural and biological sciences for the USDA.

U.S. agriculture is experiencing severe problems because of new and reemerging infectious diseases in plants and animals, a threat, which requires immediate attention. The imminent threats of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in animals and plum pox in plants are examples requiring new and extensive research. Agroterrorism could also present a serious threat to the 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 ($3.4 million FY '04 increase)) and animal research (emerging, reemerging, and exotic diseases of animals ($8.3 million FY '04 increase)) at $10 million each for FY 2004. This increase will allow ARS to focus on improving pest and disease management with biologically based technologies, genetics and genome mapping, and food safety. Furthermore, the ARS needs to focus additional resources in the area of rapid and accurate detection systems for animal and plant diseases and pathogens and effective treatment protocols. These tools remain a key component in the nation's efforts to safeguard the food supply from natural and manmade events. The ASM encourages Congress to increase funding in this high-payoff applied research.

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. For example, ARS research recently (2003) found genetic markers near the first two of the four genes that may determine soybean resistance to cyst nematodes. These microscopic roundworms rob farmers of around 220 million bushels a year. This type of high-payoff research not only improves agricultural product health and cost, but also makes U.S. products more competitive and environmentally benign. The ASM is pleased to see the Administration recognizes the promise of genomic research through the allocation of an additional $3.5 million for animal genomics. Research will also focus on developing diagnostic and vaccine technologies that will ultimately improve the nation's ability to control disease outbreaks, and mitigate the threats to the nation's animal, plant, and grain products.

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

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 infectious diseases and pests. With the U.S. food system becoming increasingly susceptible to foreign diseases and pest through trade, the U.S. must upgrade its biosafety systems to address these threats. APHIS requires new, accurate and cost effective diagnostic tools and updated information technology. APHIS's long-term efforts have kept FMD and BSE out of the U.S. to date; however, APHIS needs new resources to increase the availability of vaccines and support efforts that could combat the potential release of these agents.

The ASM does not believe the Administration's budget reflects APHIS's daunting task of combating animal and plant diseases and pests. The ASM recommends that Congress increase funding for APHIS to $1 billion, which is level with FY 2003. This level of funding would reflect APHIS's 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 urges Congress to match or exceed the President's $675 million for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The U.S. food system must confront microorganisms that 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. Continued and sustained research is vital if the nation's food supply is to meet the expectations of the American consumer and trading partners.

Microbial Genomics

Microbes are involved in all aspects of agriculture, from beneficial uses of microbes in food (e.g., yogurt), 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 supportive of microbial genomics through ARS and 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 and the Department of Energy in this area is particularly promising; as is the interagency working group on microbes that focuses on sequencing and bioinformatics (i.e., The Microbe Project).

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. 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.

The ASM encourages Congress give high priority to agricultural research for FY 2004. 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.