U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 2007 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) appreciates the opportunity to submit testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 appropriation for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world, with more than 42,000 members who work in academic, industrial, medical, and governmental institutions. The ASM’s mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved plant, animal and human health, and for economic and environmental well-being.

The USDA sponsors research and education programs, which meet the USDA’s strategic goals of enhancing competitiveness and sustainability of US agriculture; increasing economic opportunities and improving quality of life in rural America; enhancing protection and safety of the nation’s agriculture and food supply; improving the nation’s nutrition and health; and protecting and enhancing the nation’s natural resource base and environment. U.S. agriculture faces new challenges, including threats from emerging infectious diseases in plants and animals such as avian influenza, as well as threats from climate change, and public concern about food safety and security. It is critical to increase the visibility and investment in agriculture research to respond to these challenges. The ASM urges Congress to provide increased funding for research programs within the USDA in FY 2007.

Microbiological research in agriculture is vital to understanding and finding solutions to foodborne diseases, endemic diseases of long standing, new and emerging plant and animal diseases, development of new agriculture products and processes and addressing existing and emerging environmental challenges. Unfortunately, federal investment in agricultural research has not kept pace with the need for additional agricultural research to solve emerging problems. The USDA funds more than 90 percent of all federal support for the agricultural sciences. According to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report, Agricultural Research and Development: Public and Private Investments Under Alternative Markets and Institutions, the rate of return on public investment in basic agricultural research is estimated to be between 60 and 90 percent.

USDA National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program

The National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRI) was established in 1991 in response to recommendations outlined in Investing in Research: A Proposal to Strengthen the Agricultural, Food and Environmental System, a 1989 report by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Board on Agriculture. This publication called for increased funding of high priority research that is supported by the USDA through a competitive peer-review process directed at:
  • Increasing the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.
  • Improving human health and well-being through an abundant, safe, and high-quality food supply.
  • Sustaining the quality and productivity of the natural resources and the environment upon which agriculture depends.

Continued interest in and support of the NRI is reflected in two subsequent NRC reports, Investing in the National Research Initiative: An Update of the Competitive Grants Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published in 1994, and National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural Resources Research, published in 2000.

Today, the NRI, housed within the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), supports research on key problems of national and regional importance in biological, environmental, physical, and social sciences relevant to agriculture, food, and the environment on a peer-reviewed, competitive basis. Additionally, the NRI enables the USDA to develop new partnerships with other federal agencies that advance agricultural science. Examples of such collaborations include the USDA’s involvement in the Microbial Genome Sequencing Program, the Maize Genome Program, the Microbial Observatories program, the Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program, the Metabolic Engineering program, and the Climate Change Science Plan.

The ASM urges Congress to support the Administration’s requested increase for the NRI in FY 2007. NRI’s proposed increase comes from shifting the CSREES Integrated Activities, such as food safety, pest management, and water quality, making up $42.7 million of the proposed increase, providing a net increase of $24 million for the NRI including the additional responsibility of the Integrated Programs. The ASM supports the Administration’s effort to increase competitively awarded funding mechanisms and believes that competitive grants ensure the best science.

Additional funding for the NRI is needed to expand research in microbial genomics and to provide more funding for merit reviewed basic research with long-term potential for new discoveries and products. It is critical to increase the visibility and investment in agriculture research to respond to these challenges and we appreciate Congress’s efforts to fund the NRI at $181 million in FY 2006 and urge Congress to support the Administration’s FY 2007 request of $247.5 million for this program.

Agricultural Research Service
The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the USDA’s chief scientific research agency, which conducts research to develop new scientific knowledge, transfers technology to the private sector to solve critical agricultural problems of broad scope and high national priority, and provides access to scientific data. The ARS supports approximately 1,200 individual research projects conducted by scientists from the USDA at over 100 federal facilities. The Administration requests approximately $1.03 billion for the ARS in FY 2007, a 20 percent decrease from FY 2006. The ASM urges Congress to strongly support the ARS in FY 2007.

USDA Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative
The Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative is an interagency initiative to improve the federal government’s capability to rapidly identify and characterize a bioterrorist attack, by improving the national surveillance capabilities in human health, food, agriculture, and environmental monitoring. The ASM supports the Administration’s request for this initiative of $322 million for FY 2007, an increase of $127 million over FY 2006. This does not include funding for construction of the Ames, Iowa facility for animal research and diagnostics, which was fully funded in FY 2006. Of the total amount, an increase of approximately $30 million for Food Defense would enhance the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) ability to detect and respond to food emergencies and for the USDA’s research agencies to conduct related research. For Agriculture Defense, the budget includes a $97 million increase to improve the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) monitoring and surveillance of plant and animal health, including wildlife; response capabilities, including provisions for the National Veterinary Stockpile; and further research on emerging and exotic diseases.

The ASM supports this greater emphasis on research in the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative and recommends an increase in funding, both extramural and intramural, for research on pathogenic microorganisms as part of the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative.

Food Safety
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die because of foodborne illnesses. Primarily the very young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised are affected. Recent changes in human demographics and food preferences, changes in food production and distribution systems, microbial adaptation, and lack of support for public health resources and infrastructure have led to the emergence of novel as well as traditional foodborne diseases. With increasing travel and trade opportunities, it is not surprising that now there is a greater risk of contracting and spreading a foodborne illness locally, regionally, and even globally. (MMWR 2004;53[No. RR-04]). The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that the medical costs, productivity losses, and costs of premature deaths for diseases caused by just five types of foodborne pathogens exceeds $6.9 billion per year in the United States. The USDA plays a vital role in the government’s effort to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. Continued and sustained research is important to safeguarding the nation’s food supply and focusing on methods and technologies to prevent microbial foodborne disease and emerging pathogens. The ASM supports the requested increases for the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Without sustained significant increases in the level of food safety research funding, meeting the National Health Objectives for 2010 in all likelihood will not become reality. The ASM recommends a substantial increase in food safety research, which is essential to ensure the protection of the nation’s health.

Genomics Initiative
The NRI and the ARS fund the USDA collaborative efforts in the field of genomics. There are opportunities to leverage the USDA’s investments with those of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in projects to map and sequence the genomes of agriculturally important species of plants, animals, and microbes. Determining the function of the sequenced genomes (functional genomics) and analyses of the data (bioinformatics) now need investment for new management techniques and tools. The USDA plays an important role in coordinating and participating in interagency workgroups on domestic animal, microbial, and plant genomics. Access to genomic information and the new tools to utilize it have implications for virtually all aspects of agriculture. The ASM urges Congress to provide strong support for the USDA genomics initiative.

Emerging Infectious Diseases in Plants and Animals
The food production and distribution system in the U.S. is vulnerable to the introduction of pathogens and toxins through natural processes, global commerce, and intentional means. The ASM supports increases in the USDA research budget for emerging diseases and invasive species. Nearly 200 zoonotic diseases can be naturally transmitted from animals to man and opportunistic plant pathogens and soil-inhabiting microorganisms can be causal agents of infection and disease in humans. For emerging diseases to be effectively detected and controlled the biology, ecology, and mechanisms for pathogenicity of the causal pathogens must be understood and weaknesses exploited to limit their impact. This research will help address the risk to humans from emerging diseases and opportunistic pathogens, and will ensure the safety of plant and animal products. Additionally, expanded research is needed to accelerate the development of information and technologies for the protection of United States agricultural commodities, wildlife and human health against emerging diseases.

Antimicrobial Resistance Research
The USDA plays a key role in addressing the national and global increase in antimicrobial resistance and the complex issues surrounding this public health threat. The ARS Strategic Plan for 2003-2007 states the need to “determine how antimicrobial resistance is acquired, transmitted, maintained, in food-producing animals, and develop technologies or altered management strategies to control its occurrence.” In 1996, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA established the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) to monitor trends in antimicrobial resistance in foodborne pathogens; the USDA has expanded monitoring to include the Collaboration on Animal Health Food Safety Epidemiology (CAHFSE) program. The USDA support for these projects should continue and the ASM urges Congress to increase support for antimicrobial resistance surveillance, research, prevention, and control programs.

The USDA’s mission and goals of leadership on food, agriculture, and natural resources, based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management should be strongly supported. With a significant investment in research, the USDA will be better able to meet its goals. The ASM urges Congress to increase funding for agricultural research programs to enable the USDA to help ensure a safe, nutritious and plentiful food supply for America. This includes providing $247.5 million for the NRI in FY 2007.

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 appropriations process.