U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2002 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) 2002 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 past investments in science. Agricultural research has led to many advances, including biotechnology, which contribute to a more abundant and nutritious food supply due to an increasingly more efficient and environmentally friendly food production process, while at the same time reducing agriculture's reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. USDA's research budget, however, has not grown commensurate with its record of achievement and broad and unique responsibilities to support science and technology in agriculture. 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. If the lowest cost food for the nation's consumers and agricultural exports are to continue to be successful policy for the United States, then it must be understood that continued, sustained federal investment in agricultural research is necessary.

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. However, the ASM is disappointed with the continued decline in merit-based research programs at the USDA, such as the NRI, whose budget was decreased by 11 percent for FY 2001. ASM recommends that NRI be funded at the FY 2000 level of $119 million. This funding will improve important research in agriculture including food safety and nutrition, plant, animal and microbial genomics, and emerging pest and disease management. In conjunction with other coalition groups like CoFARM, the ASM believes federal support for agricultural research is essential to building the broad knowledge base needed to commercialize new and improved agricultural products and tools.

The ASM is pleased to see continued support for the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems (IFAFS). This competitive grants program differs from the NRI in that it provides mandatory funding for research and extension projects that is multi-disciplinary and applied in scope and targets critical agriculture issues.

Agricultural Research Service

U.S. agriculture is experiencing severe problems caused by new and reemerging infectious diseases in plants and animals, a threat that requires immediate attention. 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. Cost effective and real-time monitoring may now be feasible, allowing for more immediate diagnosis. Funding and enhancing agricultural research is the surest way to prevent and control infectious and zoonotic diseases afflicting livestock and aquaculture today and mitigating the threats of tomorrow.

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 a disease introduction. The U.S. needs a comprehensive biosafety system 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.

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. 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.

Food Safety

Foodborne illness continues to pose a major public health problem in the U.S. The ASM recommends that Congress provide additional funding to USDA to expand food safety research. In a recent report it was estimated foodborne diseases cost the U.S. $8 billion in medical costs and lost productivity and an estimated 76 million illnesses a year (CDC). 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 could lead to the development of new technologies to provide improved foods and 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. Thus, ASM is highly supportive of microbial genomics through the NRI and IFAFS programs. Coordination and cooperation with the National Science Foundation in this area is particularly promising.

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 Congress 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 2002. 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 several 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.