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Winter/Spring 2003 Vol. 3 No. 1

Table of Contents

U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Tim McCabe


More Than
Just Farming

The U.S. Department of Agriculture may not be the first agency that comes to mind when thinking about where federal research dollars are spent, but the department invests more than $2 billion annually in R&D. Over the years, USDA's research funds have gone mainly toward increasing harvest size, the results of which have been enormously successful -- corn yields alone have tripled in the last half century.

More food is not enough these days. The nation now demands food with higher nutritional value, and environmentally sound farming practices. Crops and livestock need to be protected against the possibility of bioterrorism. Preserving the vitality of rural communities is a concern, and how global economic forces affect American agriculture needs to be better understood. And despite increased food production, there are still people in this country, and millions worldwide, who go hungry each day.

To take on these emerging issues, USDA should shift the focus of its research efforts, says a new report from the National Research Council. Increasing food and fiber production should remain a primary concern, but USDA needs to adopt a vision that also emphasizes research on the social, environmental, and health aspects of the agricultural enterprise.

More nutritious rice grown from tissue-cultured cells specially selected for their high lysine content, U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Scott Bauer For example, although genetically modified plants offer the promise of improving agricultural productivity around the world, public acceptance of these foods is still an issue. The report says improved methods for screening transgenic plants and animals for potential allergens and adverse environmental impacts can help.

Congress asked the Research Council to assess the quality and future direction of USDA research, which is administered by its research, education, and economics (REE) mission area. The committee that wrote the report found that REE has already helped meet some of the rising challenges in agricultural research. A water-quality initiative substantially reduced the application of pesticides and fertilizers on 500,000 acres of Midwest farmlands, for example. USDA research also led to the eradication of the screwworm pest, and the recommended daily allowance for folic acid was doubled after USDA-sponsored scientists showed that the vitamin lowered the risk of heart disease.

Some research in emerging areas will require long-term study and the participation of scientists from multiple disciplines, the report adds. As an example, it cites a recent study showing that it can take as long as 20 years for nitrogen fertilizer to get from a field in Illinois to the Mississippi River, where it can be transported to the Gulf of Mexico and deplete oxygen to levels that endanger fish populations.

To achieve greater flexibility and to engage new talent and expertise in addressing emerging research opportunities, REE should devote a higher percentage of its research budget to merit-reviewed competitive grants and to cooperative agreements between governments scientists and researchers in other institutions. Scientists from key fields, such as ecology, human genetics, and bioinformatics should be hired, the report adds. REE also should quickly publish peer-reviewed research results on the Web, and interpret those results for the media and general public.   -- Bill Kearney

Frontiers in Agricultural Research: Food, Health, Environment, and Communities. Committee on Opportunities in Agriculture, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2003, 268 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08494-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $39.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Laurian J. Unnevehr, professor, department of agricultural and consumer economics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences