by Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary
What if I told you a scientist had recently discovered a way to remove up to 98% of the allergens in peanuts without affecting the flavor, thereby diminishing a severe health threat to some 2.8 million Americans who suffer from peanut allergies?
Or that a small family business is working on a project that could quench the thirst of billions of people around the world with technology that’s capable of taking water from any source and making it safe to drink?
If that sounds a little like science fiction to you, you wouldn’t be alone. But both examples exist today as part of the hundreds of scientific breakthroughs made by USDA and USDA-supported scientists since the start of the Obama Administration.
When people think of USDA, they may not immediately think of cutting-edge science or discovery. But USDA is the world’s largest agricultural research force. USDA employs around 3,000 scientists, economists, statisticians and others, and funds thousands more at land-grant universities and other institutions across the country. Together, their work has helped to shape the lives of billions of people around the world.
Science @ USDA
For eight years, USDA has been investing in the best in innovation to protect our nation and set the course for a more secure future. While the challenges we meet will continue to evolve, our mission remains the same: to make sure America remains a global force for scientific discovery and that we maintain our crucial leadership in this arena to respond to the challenges we face.
Under the Obama Administration, USDA has made a powerful statement about the importance of scientific discovery by strengthening our institutions, building our capacity and leveraging the strengths of our outside partners to do the same. From the farm to the lab to the boardroom, we’ve increased our investment in delivering problem-driven and solutions-based science that empowers farmers, foresters, ranchers, landowners, resource managers, professors and policymakers to help manage the risks we face.
Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research now returns over $20 to our economy. For our part, since 2009, USDA has invested $19 billion in research both intramural and extramural. As a result of that investment, research conducted by USDA scientists has resulted in 883 patent applications filed, 405 patents issued and 1,151 new inventions disclosures covering a wide range of topics and discoveries since 2009.
USDA also continues to aggressively partner with private companies, universities and others to transfer technology to the marketplace to benefit consumers and businesses alike. Over the years, USDA innovations have created all manner of products Americans use every day, from cosmetics, to insect controls, leathers, shampoos and of course food products. Here is a sample of USDA’s work:
- Frozen orange juice concentrate
- Turf used on many NFL and other sports fields across the country
- “Permanent press” cotton clothing
- Almost all breeds of blueberries and cranberries currently in production
- 80 percent of all varieties of citrus fruits grown in the U.S. and
- The mass production of penicillin during World War II
Still today, our scientists are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and creating new miracles on behalf of the American people year after year. Their incredible dedication underscores the importance of government funding for research so that we can continue to make cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs with real potential for commercial application and growth. In recent years, some of their other discoveries include:
- A new process to turn old tires into zinc fertilizer
- A new kind of flour made from chardonnay grape seeds that can prevent
- increases in cholesterol and weight-gain
- A portable method for identifying harmful bacteria in food that prevents foodborne illness and safeguards public health
- A new soil nitrogen test that rapidly and inexpensively determines the total amount of nitrogen in the soil that is available to a plant. The use of this test reduces fertilizer application amounts, reduces costs for farmers, and benefits the environment
- A new process for pasteurizing shelled eggs that uses radio frequency energy that is 1.5 times faster than the current pasteurization process and that does not affect the eggs’ appearance. This fast new technology should increase the number of pasteurized eggs and reduce the threat of illness from uncooked and undercooked shelled eggs
And there are many more where that came from.
Enhancing the Productivity and Sustainability of American Agriculture and Our Food Supply
USDA research has supported America’s farmers and ranchers for over 100 years, helping our agricultural sector respond rapidly and successfully to challenges as they arise. That includes working toward systems that protect long-term crop and animal health by making sure farmers are armed with knowledge and tools to make their crops and livestock more resilient to disease while keeping costs low for farmers so they can continue doing what they do best.
The 2014–2015 HPAI outbreak was the worst animal disease outbreak experienced in the United States, sweeping across 15 States and forcing officials to kill nearly 50 million birds. Consumers felt the economic impact as egg prices increased by 50.6 percent per dozen and egg shortages were seen all the way through the Midwest. Within weeks, REE scientists developed a rapid molecular test to detect the virus and quickly engineered a vaccine using a new reverse genetics technology. That’s the importance of discovery when we need it.
Our scientists and university partners have also revealed the genetic blueprints of a host of plants and animals, and used knowledge gained from the genomes of these crops to develop improved varieties. Our understanding of the genomes of apples, pigs, turkeys — and in particular tomatoes, beans, wheat and barley — are all key drivers in developing the resilience of those crops and livestock to keep a growing population well-nourished in the face of climate change.
U.S. wheat and barley, grown in 42 States, are both vital to human nutrition and to global food security. Not only that, but since 2010, the combined annual market value of wheat and barley has been estimated to be between $11 billion and $18.5 billion. When wheat and barley production in the United States was threatened by stem and stripe rusts emerging in East Africa and spreading rapidly, USDA-funded researchers worked to identify 40 new genes resistant to new strains of stem rust called Ug99. The resistant genes were identified from extensive trials in Kenya and Ethiopia over the last decade and are now being bred into U.S. grain.
Video from Microsoft Research: USDA and Microsoft Innovation Challenge for food resilience
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Microsoft are sponsoring the Innovation Challenge, a competition to develop data-driven software applications that help visualize and explore how climate change will affect the resiliency of food systems in the United States. Challenge participants will have access to a Microsoft Azure cloud-based data portal hosting key USDA datasets on agricultural practices and outcomes that span the past 100 years, enabling participants to investigate how food systems of tomorrow will be different from today.
The challenge offers prizes for applications that use the USDA data and provide actionable insights to farmers, agriculture businesses, scientists, or consumers across the United States so that they can plan for how current and future climate changes might influence food systems.
In Florida, an insect carrying the bacteria causing citrus greening disease is devastating the citrus industry by decreasing marketable fruit in infected groves by more than 50 percent. To stop the bacteria from infecting new citrus trees, ARS scientists developed a molecular system to prevent the insect, known as the Asian citrus psyllid, from feeding on the citrus sap, preventing them from transmitting the bacteria from tree to tree. This antibiotic alternative can be used in conjunction with other methods to stop the spread of citrus greening.
Since 2008, USDA plant breeders and researchers have also developed and released 714 new plant varieties and enhanced germplasm lines. USDA genebanks have distributed more than 1 million samples to researchers and breeders in the United States and abroad, operating as part of a larger effort to help create new markets and enhance economic opportunities for rural America. USDA has also pioneered methods for providing researchers with open access to germplasm information through the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Through the GRIN-Global project, USDA, in conjunction with non-governmental partners, adapted GRIN to provide an easy-to-use web-based information management system for the world’s plant genebanks to also share information on their genetic resource holdings.
When certain pollinator populations critical to the nation’s economy, food security and environmental health began to show signs of notable decline, the entire Obama Administration sprang into action. The federal-wide “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators” was released in 2015 based upon recommendations from a task force led by USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For our part, USDA researchers are taking a hard look at the causes behind the stressors impacting pollinator populations, such as mites, bacteria pesticides and management practices, and are using that vital research to work on new strategies to sustain pollinator health.
Conserving Natural Resources and Combating Climate Change
USDA is examining the potential of a suite of climate scenarios on U.S. crop production to help farmers, industry leaders and others better understand the effects of a changing climate and adopt practices that help mitigate both their agricultural production and their impacts.
In 2014, USDA established seven regional Climate Hubs and three sub-hubs. The Hubs are set up to process science and research into information that is accessible to producers, and provide them with the guidance and practices they need to help them address a region-specific set of risks due to climate variability. First established in 2014, each of the USDA Climate Hubs offer detailed vulnerability assessments for regional sensitivities and adaptation strategies for working lands. The Hubs have produced numerous decision support tools and outreach materials to help land managers make climate-informed decisions.
We’ve developed online tools aimed at providing farmers with data they can use to manage their crops. With REE support, Cornell University scientists are providing corn growers with low-cost soil assessment and greenhouse accounting tools and that also provide an evaluation of the costs and benefits of various policy incentives. Known as “Adapt-N,” the tool makes it possible to improve nitrogen use efficiency, thus improving farm profits, while reducing environmental losses.
As drought conditions continue to grip parts of the country, our scientists have begun work to develop rice and corn crops that are drought- and flood-resistant, and improved the productivity of soil. In addition, a series of satellite remote sensing tools developed by USDA will help improve agricultural drought detection, increasing our ability to reduce and prevent the impact of drought regionally and globally.
ARS researchers have also invented an automated, variable-rate, air-assisted, precision sprayer, an environmentally responsible approach that reduces average pesticide use by up to 68 percent. That also results in an annual average cost savings of $230 per acre in floral nurseries and orchards.
Header photo: When you buy a tomato product-a bottle of ketchup, a can of tomato soup, or a jar of spaghetti sauce-you’re paying the cost of removing that water. But thanks to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agriculture Research Service, (ARS) research by plant physiologist Merle Weaver at the Western Regional Research Center, in Albany California, tomorrow’s tomatoes might have less water and more of the compounds called solids that processors condense at the factory. The concentrate, rich in fiber and natural sugars, becomes the starting point for tomato paste and most of the other tomato-based foods at your supermarket.