Food and Ag Science Will Shape Our Future

Tom Vilsack
USDA Results
Published in
13 min readNov 1, 2016


What if I told you a scientist had recently discovered a way to remove up to 98% of the allergens in peanuts without affecting the flavor, thereby diminishing a severe health threat to some 2.8 million Americans who suffer from peanut allergies?

Or that a small family business is working on a project that could quench the thirst of billions of people around the world with technology that’s capable of taking water from any source and making it safe to drink?

If that sounds a little like science fiction to you, you wouldn’t be alone. But both examples exist today as part of the hundreds of scientific breakthroughs made by USDA and USDA-supported scientists since the start of the Obama Administration.

When people think of USDA, they may not immediately think of cutting-edge science or discovery. But USDA is the world’s largest agricultural research force. USDA employs around 3,000 scientists, economists, statisticians and others, and funds thousands more at land-grant universities and other institutions across the country. Together, their work has helped to shape the lives of billions of people around the world.

Science @ USDA
For eight years, USDA has been investing in the best in innovation to protect our nation and set the course for a more secure future. While the challenges we meet will continue to evolve, our mission remains the same: to make sure America remains a global force for scientific discovery and that we maintain our crucial leadership in this arena to respond to the challenges we face.

Under the Obama Administration, USDA has made a powerful statement about the importance of scientific discovery by strengthening our institutions, building our capacity and leveraging the strengths of our outside partners to do the same. From the farm to the lab to the boardroom, we’ve increased our investment in delivering problem-driven and solutions-based science that empowers farmers, foresters, ranchers, landowners, resource managers, professors and policymakers to help manage the risks we face.

Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research now returns over $20 to our economy. For our part, since 2009, USDA has invested $19 billion in research both intramural and extramural. As a result of that investment, research conducted by USDA scientists has resulted in 883 patent applications filed, 405 patents issued and 1,151 new inventions disclosures covering a wide range of topics and discoveries since 2009.

Testing and analyzing thousands of shattered Major League bats, U.S. Forest Service researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) developed changes in manufacturing that decreased the rate of shattered maple bats by more than 50 percent since 2008. While the popularity of maple bats is greater today than ever before, the number of shattered bats continues to decline. Photo Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media.

USDA also continues to aggressively partner with private companies, universities and others to transfer technology to the marketplace to benefit consumers and businesses alike. Over the years, USDA innovations have created all manner of products Americans use every day, from cosmetics, to insect controls, leathers, shampoos and of course food products. Here is a sample of USDA’s work:

  • Frozen orange juice concentrate
  • Turf used on many NFL and other sports fields across the country
  • “Permanent press” cotton clothing
  • Almost all breeds of blueberries and cranberries currently in production
  • 80 percent of all varieties of citrus fruits grown in the U.S. and
  • The mass production of penicillin during World War II

Still today, our scientists are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and creating new miracles on behalf of the American people year after year. Their incredible dedication underscores the importance of government funding for research so that we can continue to make cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs with real potential for commercial application and growth. In recent years, some of their other discoveries include:

  • A new process to turn old tires into zinc fertilizer
  • A new kind of flour made from chardonnay grape seeds that can prevent increases in cholesterol and weight-gain
  • A portable method for identifying harmful bacteria in food that prevents foodborne illness and safeguards public health
  • A new soil nitrogen test that rapidly and inexpensively determines the total amount of nitrogen in the soil that is available to a plant. The use of this test reduces fertilizer application amounts, reduces costs for farmers, and benefits the environment
  • A new process for pasteurizing shelled eggs that uses radio frequency energy that is 1.5 times faster than the current pasteurization process and that does not affect the eggs’ appearance. This fast new technology should increase the number of pasteurized eggs and reduce the threat of illness from uncooked and undercooked shelled eggs

And there are many more where that came from.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack looks through a microscope at plant tissues at the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) Tissue Culture Preparation Laboratory in Ft. Collins, CO.

Enhancing the Productivity and Sustainability of American Agriculture and Our Food Supply

USDA research has supported America’s farmers and ranchers for over 100 years, helping our agricultural sector respond rapidly and successfully to challenges as they arise. That includes working toward systems that protect long-term crop and animal health by making sure farmers are armed with knowledge and tools to make their crops and livestock more resilient to disease while keeping costs low for farmers so they can continue doing what they do best.

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The 2014–2015 HPAI outbreak was the worst animal disease outbreak experienced in the United States, sweeping across 15 States and forcing officials to kill nearly 50 million birds. Consumers felt the economic impact as egg prices increased by 50.6 percent per dozen and egg shortages were seen all the way through the Midwest. Within weeks, REE scientists developed a rapid molecular test to detect the virus and quickly engineered a vaccine using a new reverse genetics technology. That’s the importance of discovery when we need it.

Brittany Hazard, a University of California-Davis doctoral student collecting samples from a wheat field.

Our scientists and university partners have also revealed the genetic blueprints of a host of plants and animals, and used knowledge gained from the genomes of these crops to develop improved varieties. Our understanding of the genomes of apples, pigs, turkeys — and in particular tomatoes, beans, wheat and barley — are all key drivers in developing the resilience of those crops and livestock to keep a growing population well-nourished in the face of climate change.

U.S. wheat and barley, grown in 42 States, are both vital to human nutrition and to global food security. Not only that, but since 2010, the combined annual market value of wheat and barley has been estimated to be between $11 billion and $18.5 billion. When wheat and barley production in the United States was threatened by stem and stripe rusts emerging in East Africa and spreading rapidly, USDA-funded researchers worked to identify 40 new genes resistant to new strains of stem rust called Ug99. The resistant genes were identified from extensive trials in Kenya and Ethiopia over the last decade and are now being bred into U.S. grain.

USDA Microsoft Challenge
USDA partnered with Microsoft to launch a worldwide competition that provided developers access to more than 100 years of USDA datasets to develop solutions helping farmers, communities and businesses better adapt to changes in climate. The winning entry helps farmers analyze USDA data on crops grown within a five mile radius of their farms.

In Florida, an insect carrying the bacteria causing citrus greening disease is devastating the citrus industry by decreasing marketable fruit in infected groves by more than 50 percent. To stop the bacteria from infecting new citrus trees, ARS scientists developed a molecular system to prevent the insect, known as the Asian citrus psyllid, from feeding on the citrus sap, preventing them from transmitting the bacteria from tree to tree. This antibiotic alternative can be used in conjunction with other methods to stop the spread of citrus greening.

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Since 2008, USDA plant breeders and researchers have also developed and released 714 new plant varieties and enhanced germplasm lines. USDA genebanks have distributed more than 1 million samples to researchers and breeders in the United States and abroad, operating as part of a larger effort to help create new markets and enhance economic opportunities for rural America. USDA has also pioneered methods for providing researchers with open access to germplasm information through the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Through the GRIN-Global project, USDA, in conjunction with non-governmental partners, adapted GRIN to provide an easy-to-use web-based information management system for the world’s plant genebanks to also share information on their genetic resource holdings.

This is a close-up photograph of a parasitic mite Varroa destructor and is the major factor in overwintering colony declines. USDA ARS is looking to the genetics of both the mite and the honey bee for long-term solutions.

When certain pollinator populations critical to the nation’s economy, food security and environmental health began to show signs of notable decline, the entire Obama Administration sprang into action. The federal-wide “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators” was released in 2015 based upon recommendations from a task force led by USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For our part, USDA researchers are taking a hard look at the causes behind the stressors impacting pollinator populations, such as mites, bacteria, pesticides and management practices, and are using that vital research to work on new strategies to sustain pollinator health.

Conserving Natural Resources and Combating Climate Change

USDA is examining the potential of a suite of climate scenarios on U.S. crop production to help farmers, industry leaders and others better understand the effects of a changing climate and adopt practices that help mitigate both their agricultural production and their impacts.

In 2014, USDA established seven regional Climate Hubs and three sub-hubs. The Hubs are set up to process science and research into information that is accessible to producers, and provide them with the guidance and practices they need to help them address a region-specific set of risks due to climate variability. First established in 2014, each of the USDA Climate Hubs offer detailed vulnerability assessments for regional sensitivities and adaptation strategies for working lands. The Hubs have produced numerous decision support tools and outreach materials to help land managers make climate-informed decisions.

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists measure the growth of wheat surrounded by elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide near Phoenix, AZ. The Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE) study’s goal is to measure carbon dioxide’s effect on plants. It is the largest experiment of this type ever undertaken.

We’ve developed online tools aimed at providing farmers with data they can use to manage their crops. With REE support, Cornell University scientists are providing corn growers with low-cost soil assessment and greenhouse accounting tools and that also provide an evaluation of the costs and benefits of various policy incentives. Known as “Adapt-N,” the tool makes it possible to improve nitrogen use efficiency, thus improving farm profits, while reducing environmental losses.

As drought conditions continue to grip parts of the country, our scientists have begun work to develop rice and corn crops that are drought- and flood-resistant, and improved the productivity of soil. In addition, a series of satellite remote sensing tools developed by USDA will help improve agricultural drought detection, increasing our ability to reduce and prevent the impact of drought regionally and globally.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite image with enhanced low cloud-top temperatures.

ARS researchers have also invented an automated, variable-rate, air-assisted, precision sprayer, an environmentally responsible approach that reduces average pesticide use by up to 68 percent. That also results in an annual average cost savings of $230 per acre in floral nurseries and orchards.

Improving Public Health and Fighting Obesity

USDA and USDA-supported science play a large role in building the evidence base for strong and science-based policies that keep Americans safe, healthy and well-nourished.

USDA Science at Your Grocery Store
Caption: Dr. Hyun Lillehoj is keeping USDA on the cutting edge of public health with her work to find alternative methods of fighting poultry disease that can be used by poultry growers to mitigate the use antibiotics. We may take it for granted that poultry, such as chicken, will always be on the menu, and USDA scientists like Dr. Lillehoj help ensure we won’t be disappointed.

For example, USDA researchers have made discoveries that prove eating a protein-rich breakfast increases the brain’s level of dopamine, a chemical that helps reduce food cravings and overeating later in the day. USDA scientists recorded brain electrical activity during the performance of mental arithmetic in children and found that those who ate breakfast were more efficient at solving math problems than those who did not. Their results provide evidence for the beneficial effects of breakfast on learning in school-aged children, and provide support for policies that seek to improve school performance and slow the trend of childhood obesity through better nutrition.

Our scientists also belong to an international team that has found a way to boost the nutritional value of broccoli, tomatoes and corn, and have worked to find ways to bolster the nutritional content of other staple crops like oats and rice. USDA research has supported these efforts, showing how healthy foods can often cost less than foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugar and/or sodium.

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The Food Environment Atlas is a USDA-developed online mapping tool that provides a spatial overview of a community’s ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so. Those concerned about access to healthy foods can create and print maps showing food access indicators that take into account distance to supermarkets and vehicle availability, view indicators of food access for selected subpopulations and download census-tract-level data on food access measures. This tool helps support expanding the availability of nutritious and affordable food — an important part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative.

A team of scientists from the University of Florida at a field site in Haiti is being funded through NIFA’s Exploratory Research Grants program to determine the range of mosquito species capable of transmitting Zika virus. Because of similarities in mosquito species between Haiti and some southern U.S. states, the information generated from this research has potential to be of immediate use both there and in at-risk areas like Florida.

Strengthening Research, Institutions and Integrity

In a time of federal budgetary restraints, USDA is continuously looking at breakthrough policies that leverage federal dollars against private contributions to make the most possible of our investments. Under this Administration, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) was developed to complement USDA efforts to support science addressing today’s food and agriculture challenges and to build public-private partnerships critical to boosting America’s agricultural economy. Its creation was authorized by Congress as part of the 2014 Farm Bill, which also provided $200 million for the foundation that must be matched by non-federal funds as the Foundation identifies and approves projects.

Under the Obama Administration, USDA has restructured its science agencies to maximize effectiveness with our partners in the scientific community. In addition to the 2009 creation of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which consolidates all USDA-funded extramural food and agricultural research programs, we’ve also strengthened the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), which identifies and prioritizes issues to be addressed by USDA scientists and researchers. USDA’s Science Council consists of scientific leaders from across USDA that advise OCS on priorities for USDA’s science agenda. In early 2015, the Department also approved the Chief Scientist’s plan to move from a largely rotating senior staff to a more permanent and consistent employment structure.

In 2011, USDA became one of the first Departments to establish a scientific integrity policy. Since then, we have revised the policy as a Departmental Regulation with additional detail and designated the full-time position of Departmental Scientific Integrity Officer as a permanent position within OCS. In 2012, OCS developed an Action Plan, which provides a foundation for prioritizing research across USDA’s agencies. It has subsequently issued action plans and progress reports for each year thereafter.

We’ve also proudly renewed our longstanding partnership with land grant universities on several fronts. In particular, USDA celebrated 150 years of partnership with Land-Grant Universities, an interactive event at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and 125 years with the 1890 historically black Land-Grant colleges and universities.

Recognizing the voice of youth is important, USDA plays a key role in providing positive youth development through the internationally recognized 4-H administered federally for more than a century and implemented through Cooperative Extension System partners at land-grant universities. 4-H engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups and families to enhance their strengths and help steer more youth into the STEM professions. 4-H partners with 112 land-grant universities to provide mentoring and help, building a foundation of leadership and skills for success in their future careers.

In 2015, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack met with eight members of the National 4-H community in the Oval Office. Each one of them had an inspiring story about how they are opening up new doors for kids in their hometowns, and how this work is building stronger communities where they can learn, play and grow. Read their stories.

Our work has also helped drive innovation, executing 545 new Cooperative Research and Development Agreements since 2009 with outside investigators including companies, universities and other organizations. In fiscal year 2015, USDA had 301 active Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, including 106 with small businesses.

We’re also supporting small businesses and cutting edge innovation through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program which encourages American businesses with 500 employees or fewer to engage in high-growth research and development that has the potential for commercialization. Since 2009, USDA’s SBIR program has awarded nearly 850 research and development grants to American-owned, independently operated, for-profit businesses, allowing hundreds of small businesses to explore their technological potential, and providing an incentive to profit from the commercialization of innovative ideas. Past examples of successful SBIR projects include the sustainable water desalination and purification technology we mentioned at the outset of this chapter, as well as LLC’s research to cultivate elderberry varieties with high antioxidant levels that are now harvested and marketed for their anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.

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The challenges facing our nation are immense. But they can be addressed with robust investment, not only in our science, research and development enterprise, but also with a focus on making sure our next generation succeeds where and when they need to. I’m proud to say that for the last eight years, and indeed long before that, USDA has served to protect, secure and improve our food, agricultural and natural resources systems through an unwavering commitment to innovation and staunch support for the amazing scientists and researchers who work everyday to make our world a better place to live.

Header photo: When you buy a tomato product-a bottle of ketchup, a can of tomato soup, or a jar of spaghetti sauce-you’re paying the cost of removing that water. But thanks to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agriculture Research Service, (ARS) research by plant physiologist Merle Weaver at the Western Regional Research Center, in Albany California, tomorrow’s tomatoes might have less water and more of the compounds called solids that processors condense at the factory. The concentrate, rich in fiber and natural sugars, becomes the starting point for tomato paste and most of the other tomato-based foods at your supermarket.