Coalition calls for more funding to support agricultural research

UNIVERSITY PARK Pa. — The head of Penn State’s Department of Entomology is among a coalition that includes top scientists from 11 research universities in Washington, D.C, today (March 2) calling for stronger federal support of the food and agricultural sciences.

Pointing to achievements that include a new process to remove allergens from peanuts, the group’s just-released report, “Retaking the Field — Strengthening the Science of Farm and Food Production,” reviews research projects funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at each institution.

“This effort by the coalition of universities sets the table for stronger support of food and agricultural science in the 2018 Farm Bill,” said Gary Felton, professor and department head of entomology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. He and his colleagues conducted one of the studies highlighted in the report. They analyzed how the saliva of caterpillars and other insect excretions trigger the defenses of crop plants, providing a new path for plant breeders to explore as they develop more resistant cultivars.

A drought in federal funding of food and agricultural research exists, according to Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation.

“USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program, the agency’s premier source of competitively awarded grants, generates the science that keeps our farms healthy,” he said. “But farmers need a flood of research breakthroughs, and the initiative’s limited budget only allows for a trickle.”

The new “Retaking the Field” report shows how scientists are solving some of the thorniest questions in food production despite the USDA’s limited research budget. Even as the research budget for all federal agencies has climbed, the USDA’s share has nearly been cut in half.

Grumbly, with the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, notes that funding levels in the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative illustrate this trend. The program, which was first established in the 2008 Farm Bill, currently receives only half of its authorized level of $700 million. As a result, the rate in which proposals for initiative funding receive approval hovers just above 10 percent, far below the rates found in European countries and elsewhere.

“Researchers are solving some of the most important problems that farmers face,” added Grumbly, “from Bovine Respiratory Disease, which infects more than one out of every five beef cattle in feedlots, to rice and wheat rust, which keeps evolving to overcome scientists’ efforts to breed resistance. Too often, their success hinges on whether they secure enough funding to keep the lab doors open. Too much top-quality, high-impact research is unfunded and left on the cutting-room floor.”

The other research teams profiled in the “Retaking the Field” report include:

– Cornell University, Susan McCouch and colleagues cross-referenced genetic details with climate and harvest data over the past 40 years for every rice-growing region in the U.S. to help plant breeders develop new weather-specific varieties.

– Iowa State University, Hongwei Xin and colleagues developed adaptations for cage-free, egg-production systems that improve indoor-air quality and allow more farmers to respond to consumer demand by adapting cage-free systems.

– Kansas State University, Barbara Valent and colleagues examined the blast fungus, which has long afflicted rice crops and now infects wheat fields, to determine new ways that plants can resist the pathogen and overcome its ability to evolve.

– Michigan State University, Gale Strasburg and colleagues examined the impacts of heat stress on turkey muscle development. In developing methods to boost heat-stress tolerance, the researchers help farmers produce better meat.

– North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Jianmei Yu and colleagues devised a process that removes 98 percent of the major allergens in roasted peanuts using a naturally occurring enzyme, and then engineered the process to treat raw peanuts as well.

– Ohio State University, Chang-Won Lee and colleagues examined and catalogued the microbiome in a chicken’s respiratory tract, the first step in developing management systems that can lower the level of pathogens hurting production.

– Texas A&M University, James Womack and colleagues found two dozen regions of the dairy cattle genome that could be associated with resistance to bovine respiratory disease. The team will next look for correlations in the beef-cattle genome.

– University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Daniel Ciobanu and colleagues identified genetic markers in sows associated with the earlier onset of puberty, allowing the pigs to produce more litters in their lifetime and increasing production efficiency.

­– Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, John McDowell and colleagues developed new tools for identifying and managing the oomycete pathogens that plague soybeans and other row crops. They also discovered a separate oomycete genus.

– University of California, Davis, Jorge Dubcovsky and colleagues have mapped out more than 90,000 genetic markers in wheat plants and identified the markers that are linked to further increases in productivity and resistance to dangerous pathogens.

The “Retaking the Field” report can be downloaded here.

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Last Updated March 02, 2017