Wednesday, June 25, 2008



(This essay was sent to the Washington Post in early June 2008 as an editorial which the Post did not consider publishing for their own internal reasons. We can only suppose that sources of food are not yet a critical problem for the Post. We would be delighted to arrange a tour for the Post if they would only take notice of the Los Alamos of Agricultural Research in their own front yard at the Henry A Wallace Agricultural Research Center Beltsville, and the National Agricultural Library)

Food, fiber, fuel, forests, and flowers are the basic fabric of life that we so often take for granted. But wait! The optimism American society has experienced for a safe, affordable and abundant food supply is melting in the face of the reality of modern agriculture. In much of the world, large populations face starvation. Demand for basic food commodities has never been greater and supplies are limited.

Research has provided the breakthrough advances that have resulted in the American consumer being the best--yet most inexpensively--fed population on earth. Americans traditionally have paid less than 10 percent of household income for food. Today, rapid increases in basic commodity prices are taking a much bigger bite out of family paychecks.

The Beltsville Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, located on the Route 1 corridor between Laurel and College Park, has been on the forefront of providing benefits to farmers and consumers for nearly 100 years. Research in Beltsville is focused on improving plant and animal productivity and developing technologies for sustaining food production while protecting the environment.

In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev, Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, included Beltsville as one of three places he visited in the U.S. Beltsville was the envy of the world in developing state-of-the-art plant and animal products and technology to feed the nation. Major discoveries in the first 50 years include:

The “Beltsville Turkey” in the 1940s, the first turkey with a high content of breast meat is the progenitor of every small white turkey sold in the U.S. today.

The first vaccine was developed to prevent hog cholera, a disease that caused over $100 million losses annually.

The finding that reduced thickness of eggshells was caused by DDT, which was endangering species of birds, including the American eagle.

DEET, the most widely used insect repellent that has saved millions of lives worldwide.

First collection in New Guinea of wild impatiens and breeding new hybrids, among the most widely sold U.S. ornamentals.

The 7,500-acre Beltsville Center typifies the financial strain affecting agricultural research nationwide. Despite the Center’s bright history of achievement, many vital projects and programs have been eliminated because of a lack of funding. One-third of the more than 100 buildings are outdated, crumbling and closed. Others urgently need renovation.

Maintaining and increasing agricultural productivity and sustainability will require major increases in federal funding. From 2005 to 2008 budgets have been flat or declined. The reasons for these reductions are complex. The most difficult funding issues, however, are the increased costs of energy and salaries. For years, these increase costs have been paid from within existing budgets without significant increases in congressional appropriations. So the research and the science have suffered!

Homeland security depends on a safe and sustainable food supply. The research challenge of the 21st century is to achieve this goal in an ever-changing environment. The challenge can be met only if there is an investment in long-term research. Although new methods in biotechnology will shorten the time required for new research achievements, it will take years--not months—before benefits are realized for consumers.

Maintaining collections of higher plants, fungi, insects and nematodes are vital to maintaining homeland security. Beltsville scientists do this daily in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, in support of the Animal and Plant Health Protection Service and the Department of Homeland Security. These vital research-related activities protect U.S agriculture from invasion from abroad by harmful insects, fungi and nematode diseases.

Despite limited resources excellent research continues at Beltsville. Recent contributions include:

New technology using aerial digital photography to monitor crop growth, resulting in reduced use of fertilizer and pesticides without reducing crop yield.

Dietary studies performed in state-of-the-art facilities have determined the influence of foods and specific nutrients on obesity and the development of chronic diseases.

Mastitis in cattle costs the U.S. industry $2 billion a year in lost milk
production. Scientists have introduced into cattle a gene encoding a natural protein that makes them resistant to the disease.

Improved methods in crop breeding that have yielded fruits like blueberries and strawberries, vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes with improved yields, resistance to pests and diseases, and enhanced nutritional quality.

Scientists have developed minimum tillage organic agricultural systems that increases crop yields and enhances soil fertility and environmental quality.

American farmers are making record profits at a time when there are world food shortages. With demand for basic food commodities never greater, current supplies do not meet the demand. Consumers in the U.S. are paying record prices for basic foodstuffs that utilize wheat, corn and soybeans.

There are many reasons for this current imbalance, but pressures on the food supply will not disappear soon. As land is diverted from wheat and corn production for ethanol in gasoline, food prices have soared. Farmers who own land with marginal production capability are now being rewarded with subsidies to encourage production because of a history of prolonged drought.

Will farmers continue to enjoy the current level of productivity? In the U.S. and worldwide, farmers cannot continue to grow crops on depleted soils and continue to get near-maximum yields. Worldwide depleted soil has become an emerging problem. Reduced soil organic matter content cannot be compensated for by repeated additions of inorganic chemical fertilizers.

Changes in climate will predictably change the level of productivity on crop lands here and around the world. In some geographical areas the growing season has lengthened due to global warming; while in other areas growing seasons have become shorter. In some areas, drought will dramatically change how cropland is managed. Crops grown on these lands today will not produce sustainable yields. These crops will have to be modified using new techniques of gene engineering or new tolerant varieties will have to be bred to withstand the increased stress conditions.

Major biotechnology companies are currently producing “climate ready” crops using genetic engineering, but these advances involve the use of patent protected genes. This protected technology will serve shareholder interest, but may not serve the general public interest. Publicly funded research is necessary to develop non-patented genetically transformed stress resistant plants. Federal funding is also required to research alternative crops that will produce the food and fiber needed to sustain our population.

Added to the crisis, rapid changes in air quality have occurred in combination with global warming. The concentration of carbon dioxide has increased more during the industrial revolution than it any time during the last several million years. In addition to carbon dioxide, air quality has been lowered by increases in ozone and other industrial pollutants. Research at Beltsville on the effects of these changes on plant growth and productivity was initiated more than 40 years ago. Results of this research have added important predictive value in assessing the importance of these pollutants on crop yield.

Changes in the environment will alter crop productivity and practices at an ever increasing rate. Understanding the nature of these changes and the associated effects will be essential if our society is to thrive. As Americans we have led the world in developing the most advanced systems for high output crop production. In the past, these goals were often achieved without concern for the environmental consequences. Today, our objective should be to maintain a high level of agricultural productivity while protecting the environment.

U.S. congressional leaders and other citizens should recognize the urgent need to increase funding for agricultural research. The European Union and other parts of the world have arguably taken a lead in performing the agricultural research that will enable their food demands to be met. As a people, we must not wait until the consequences of federal inaction are realized through a diminished food supply both at home and abroad.

It is our national responsibility to ensure that Congress take action to return the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center to the national flagship status that it once held. They must act now to keep the food we Americans enjoy as affordable, safe and abundant.

Roger Lawson, Agricultural Research Service
National Program Leader, retired

John Peter Thompson - Chair, Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce
President, National Agricultural Alliance-Beltsville

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