Iowa State University and 10 other research universities have joined the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation to call for stronger federal support of the food and agricultural sciences.
Their new report, Retaking the Field — Strengthening the Science of Farm and Food Production, explores research projects funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) at each institution.
“Iowa is a perennial powerhouse of agricultural production, a key economic driver for our state that depends on science,” said Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The Retaking the Field report is a great example of universities joining in a common message calling for increased federal investment in food, agricultural and natural resources research. These are critical resources that help ensure we more sustainably produce food, energy and everyday materials, as well as protect plant, animal and human health, while conserving our environment so it’s productive far into the future.”
“The drought in federal funding of food and agricultural research still exists,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. “USDA’s AFRI program, the agency’s premier source of competitively awarded grants, generates the science that keeps our farms healthy. But farmers need a flood of research breakthroughs, and AFRI’s limited budget only allows for a trickle.”
The new report outlines Iowa State research led by Hongwei Xin and colleagues, who 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.
“We want our discoveries to help the industry better cope with the environmental challenges while trying to meet the increased demand,” said Xin, director of the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State, a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Iowa Egg Council endowed professor. “We need to find the best production system that will accommodate the chickens’ natural behaviors and welfare, protect workers, minimize environment impact and still keep the price of eggs from skyrocketing.”
The new Retaking the Field report — the second in SoAR’s series — 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, USDA’s share has nearly been cut in half.
Grumbly of SoAR notes that AFRI’s funding levels 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 AFRI 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 Retaking the Field 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.
- 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.
- Pennsylvania State University — Gary Felton and colleagues 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.
- Texas A&M University — James E. Womack and colleagues found at least 150 regions of the cattle genome that could be associated with resistance as well as susceptibility to Bovine Respiratory Disease in beef and dairy cattle.
- University of Nebraska, Lincoln — Daniel C. 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 Tech — 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.