The USDA’s Agricultural Research Services and National Institute of Food & Agriculture both play key roles in advancing food and agricultural research, effective resource management and economic opportunities for rural communities, as Open Access Government learns
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln at a time when around half of all Americans lived on farms.
Today, 156 years later, just 2% of Americans live on farms. Nevertheless, the modern USDA aims to stay true to President Lincoln’s vision in its work on food, agriculture, rural development and conserving natural resources.
The Agricultural Research Services (ARS) is the USDA’s chief in-house scientific research agency. It is charged with finding solutions to problems affecting Americans from the field to table, including food safety; assessing the nutritional needs of Americans; sustaining a competitive agricultural economy; and delivering economic opportunities for rural communities, as well as wider society.
The ARS runs 690 research projects within 15 National Programmes, employs 2,000 scientists and post-doctorate staff, as well as 6,000 other employees and runs more than 90 research locations both in the U.S. and overseas. The agency’s annual budget tops $1.1 billion.
Recent ARS studies have looked at everything from developing a new way of estimating calories, which showed that not all calories in nuts such as pistachios and walnuts are used by the human body, to create a technology that streamlines the process of inserting multiple genes into crop plants. This could make it easier to breed varieties of potatoes, rice, citrus and other crops that are more tolerant to drought, resistant to diseases and produce higher yields.
Elsewhere, an ARS-led team has recently retooled tunicamycin, a compound secreted by a common soil bacterium that kills off encroaching bacteria by forming holes in their cell walls, so it poses little or no danger to human or animal cells but can still kill germs.
This could potentially be hugely beneficial in bolstering the effectiveness of penicillin, which ARS scientists originally helped to mass produce to treat troops during World War II.
Decades of widespread use has seen some germs develop resistance to penicillin. In lab trials, however, mixing the modified tunicamycin with oxacillin and other penicillin-based drugs made them 32 to 64 times more potent.
In addition, the compounds did not harm cultures of human and hamster cells when it was added to them in toxicity tests, the team reported in the Journal of Antibiotics.
The tunicamycin-producing Streptomyces bacteria were taken from the same repository where the first mass-produced strain of the penicillin mould is still kept – the ARS Microbial Culture Collection at the National Centre for Agricultural Utilisation Research in Peoria, Illinois, which in 2001 was designated as an International Historic Chemical Landmark.
The research was carried out by the ARS in cooperation with the University of Illinois College of Medicine and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Another key agency within the USDA is the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), which administers federal investment in agricultural research and education to address national challenges and ensure ground-breaking scientific discoveries make it beyond the laboratory.
Its priority areas for investment include:
- Food security: Supporting science that boosts domestic agricultural production to meet global food demand and fight hunger.
- Water: Funding programmes that improve water quality and the efficient use of resources for sustainable agriculture, forest production and ecosystem services.
- Human nutrition: Supporting research, education and extension programmes that lead to a healthy population.
- Agroclimate science: NIFA-funded projects support adaptation to changing weather patterns, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon.
- Sustainable bioenergy: Contributing to energy independence through investment in bioenergy production and bio-based commercial or industrial products.
- Food safety: Reducing food-borne illnesses by addressing the causes of microbial contamination and antimicrobial resistance, improving education for consumers and food safety professionals and developing enhanced food processing techniques.
This year, the NIFA has provided $2.4 million in funding to address shortages of veterinarians and ensure rural communities have sufficient access to livestock veterinary services.
It has also allocated $2.9 million for the 2018 fiscal year to the Rural Health & Safety Education Competitive Grant Programme, which provides funding for individual and family health education in rural communities. Initiatives focus on areas such as the value of good health at any age, providing information to increase people’s motivation to take more responsibility for their own health and promoting access to health and educational activities.
Elsewhere, the NIFA has announced grants worth $2 million to support research looking at the implications of gene editing technologies in agriculture.
The University of Florida, Iowa State University of Science & Technology, Santa Fe Institute and Texas A&M University will lead projects that look at issues such as defining consumers’ preferences for regulation and consumption of food derived from gene-edited crops; identifying inducements and impediments to the public trust of gene-edited foods; and evaluating the environment for public and stakeholder engagement around the potential research, development and use of gene drive technology in controlling pests.
At the larger end of the scale, the NIFA has committed $21 million to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP), which aims to encourage eligible low-income families to buy more fruits and vegetables by providing a range of incentives at the point of purchase.
Among the schemes receiving funding is an initiative to introduce an e-incentive benefits redemption system in Georgia – the first of its kind for nutrition incentives. The system will replace the use of wooden tokens that act as currency for SNAP-eligible foods. The scheme aims to eliminate the stigma attached to using tokens, while reducing the costs associated with the “analogue” system and encouraging repeat visits by being more user-friendly. Data on purchasing habits will also be used to shape marketing efforts.
Increasing low-income communities’ ability to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables not only helps to improve the health of families but also expands economic opportunities for farmers.
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