New Era For Agricultural Science | October 26, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 43 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 43 | pp. 22-23
Issue Date: October 26, 2009

New Era For Agricultural Science

More resources, overhauled extramural research program reinvigorate science at USDA
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Sustainability
Keywords: Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Science
Congress is giving agricultural research a boost, creating opportunities for scientists such as chemists shown here working on transgenic plants.
Credit: Brian Prechtel/USDA
Congress is giving agricultural research a boost, creating opportunities for scientists such as chemists shown here working on transgenic plants.
Credit: Brian Prechtel/USDA

In front of a standing-room only crowd at the National Press Club earlier this month, Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launched the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA)—USDA’s brand-new extramural research grants program.

As he unveiled the new institute, Vilsack outlined his bold vision for transforming science at USDA to address broad challenges facing food and agriculture in the U.S and around the world. He was joined by many high-level officials from other federal agencies, who emphasized that USDA will be an essential partner in solving their most intractable problems.

NIFA is at the heart of Vilsack’s plan. The secretary hopes to shake up the competitive grants program and refocus USDA’s resources on a few key areas that are likely to have the biggest impact on improving human health and the environment.

Those priority areas include ending world hunger while keeping U.S. agriculture competitive through the development of stress-resistant crops; improving nutrition and ending childhood obesity; radically improving food safety; securing energy from renewable, domestic sources; and identifying agricultural lands that can be carbon sinks within 10 years.

Joining Vilsack at the event was Rajiv Shah, USDA’s chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education, and economics. Before joining the department in June, Shah was director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He holds an M.D. and degrees in economics.

USDA is going to scale up investments in research areas where it has the most expertise and experience and “get out of the businesses where we are not as effective,” Shah stressed. The department will also emphasize getting results that will make an impact on society, he noted.

At a luncheon briefing before the event, Shah told a group of reporters that he is conducting a top-to-bottom review of all of USDA’s intramural and extramural research programs. Of all of the agency’s research programs, “NIFA is the most transformative opportunity we have to rebrand and reenergize science,” because the program has undergone a complete overhaul from its predecessor, he noted.

NIFA’s first director is Roger N. Beachy, a world-renowned plant scientist and founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, in St. Louis. He joined USDA just days before the event. He was also at the luncheon and spoke with C&EN about exciting opportunities for chemists under NIFA.

Beachy expressed optimism about using the genetic diversity of biochemical pathways in plants to make new products. “Plants make more than 400,000 different kinds of chemicals,” he noted. The chemicals are produced in response to many factors including a plant’s genetics, the environment, and pathogens, he said.

It is important to understand such pathways and how specific chemical structures could be used in manufacturing a new polymer or other industrial product, a new food additive that can provide more natural protection against contamination, or a new drug, Beachy added. “Let’s understand the diversity, how the diversity is created, and how to use the diversity.”

One of Beachy’s goals is to raise public awareness of agricultural research so it is more on par with biomedical research in attracting funding and bright young students. He emphasized how NIFA’s budget pales in comparison with the research budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, even though its mission is just as important.

Policymakers seem to have already gotten the message of agricultural research’s importance. According to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science released earlier this month, Congress gave NIFA a total of $1.3 billion for fiscal 2010, a 9.9% boost compared with 2009 funding levels for the former Cooperative State Research, Education & Extension Service (CSREES), which NIFA replaced on Oct 1. NIFA was established under the Food, Conservation & Energy Act of 2008 (H.R. 2419).

NIFA’s 2010 budget includes $808 million for R&D, an increase of 12.2% compared with 2009, and $536 million for non-R&D programs. Approximately 15.0% of NIFA’s R&D budget is “earmarked” for special congressionally directed projects. That is just 1.0% less than in 2009, despite pressure to eliminate such projects from federal R&D budgets.

The biggest gain in NIFA’s 2010 budget goes to the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative, the institute’s primary competitive grants program. AFRI is slated to receive $262 million, or 30.3% more than in 2009.

“We will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people,” Vilsack pledged. He also emphasized the importance of partnering with other federal agencies to avoid duplication.

Representatives from several federal agencies spoke at the launch of NIFA, voicing the importance of the collaborations their agencies have with USDA. “NIFA will play an invaluable role in providing much-needed science to inform our efforts to reduce food-borne illness,” noted Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration. “Our collaborative efforts with USDA in such areas as produce safety and on seafood inspections already have made a difference, but there is so much more that needs to be done.”

One area that is ripe for collaboration with FDA is the development of new diagnostic tests, Shah added. “We look forward to working with FDA to help develop new and sophisticated diagnostics to identify food pathogens and chemical contaminants in food.”

USDA is also partnering with the Department of State on food security. “Ending world hunger is a shared commitment that USDA has with the State Department and many other parts of the federal government as we work to execute the President’s food-security initiative,” Shah noted.

High on the list of priorities for USDA is developing an agricultural system “that is resilient to, responsive to, and adapted to a changing climate,” Shah said.

Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the State Department, emphasized that NIFA “has been a long time in coming, but it arrived on the scene just when we need it the most.” She predicted that “NIFA will play a major role in the global food-security challenge by harnessing the potential of research, strengthening agricultural education, and delivering the latest advances to the field.”

Credit: USDA
Credit: USDA

NSF has been collaborating with USDA for a long time, pointed out Cora B. Marrett, acting deputy director of NSF. For example, “through the metabolic engineering program with funding from USDA, NSF, and several other agencies, researchers are enhancing our understanding and use of the chemical know-how found in the cells of livestock, crops, and microbes.” Such understanding will lead to “new ways to make fuels, produce foods, and fight disease,” she explained.

In addition, Marrett stressed the importance of education. “NSF and NIFA are both committed to the first-rate preparation of scientists, technologists, engineers, and educators,” she said. “The emergence of NIFA is timely, given the demands of our time and given our expectations, if we are to prepare the next generation for the challenges that lie ahead.”

NIH and USDA also have many mutual research interests, pointed out Sally J. Rockey, acting deputy director for extramural research at NIH. Rockey knows both agencies well, having spent 18 years with CSREES before joining NIH. Together, the two agencies should “unravel the physiological, molecular, and behavioral factors that lead to obesity,” and promote healthy eating habits, she noted. “We also share interest in many other areas, including global health, the interplay between environmental factors and public health, nutrition, and food-borne illnesses.”

In yet another collaboration, USDA and the Department of Energy are pursuing biofuels research. “We’ve had the opportunity to work together on our bioenergy research programs, and we realize that DOE and USDA have very complementary skill sets,” Shah noted. USDA will focus on improving plant-based feedstocks for biofuels, and DOE will continue investing in biochemical and thermochemical R&D to break down those feedstocks and new technologies to convert them into fuels, he said.

“The opportunity to truly transform a field of science happens at best once a generation,” Vilsack remarked. “Right now, I am convinced, is USDA’s opportunity to work with the Congress, the other science agencies, and with our partners in industry, academia, and the nonprofit sector to bring about transformative change.”

Some groups such as the nonprofit National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which represents farm, rural development, and conservation groups, called USDA’s approach to addressing societal challenges too limited and narrow. Although “NSAC supports the renewed interest in funding agricultural research,” the group noted in a weekly update on its blog that it has concerns about the appointment of Beachy because of his connections with the biotech industry. These connections include collaborative work with Monsanto that led to the first genetically modified food crop. NSAC also believes that USDA should look for alternative ways to enable agricultural sustainability and not focus so strongly on the use of biotechnology and nanotechnology.

President Barack Obama pledged this past spring to invest more in basic sciences and to commit as much as 3% of the U.S. gross domestic product to science (C&EN, May 4, page 7). “Agricultural science needs to be part of that strategic investment,” Vilsack stressed.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, reassured Vilsack at the NIFA launch that “the White House is behind you 100%.” Holdren said that he was inspired to see USDA, “which has long been humbled in its ability to sponsor extramural research grants and programs of the sort that NIFA will now support,” get the freedom and resources it needs to address important societal challenges.

“The unfortunate truth is that USDA has not always been at the table when we talk about the broad science-based issues facing us as a society,” Holdren noted. “But it is at the table now and is going to stay there.”

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