Friday, June 13, 2008

BARC & NAL: The front line in the attack of killer tomatoes and other agents of terror

Today’s security threat seems to be tomatoes. A sudden, overpowering terror, affecting many people at once has struck causing consternation and fear resulting in a reinforcement of some citizens’ natural reluctance to enjoy vegetables. Legislators speak about control and elimination of the problem of unclean vegetables and fruits. They look for ways to legislate the challenge away.

Meanwhile, about twelve miles from the halls of power, the National Center for Agricultural Research, BARC, languishes, withering on the vine, having lost almost half its research capacity over the last decade or more. The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, which, perhaps, should better be know as the Department of Food, Fuel, Fibers, Flowers and Forests has wide ranging impact on our quality of life, and buried within its huge oversight responsibilities under layers of acronyms is the Agricultural Research Service. The Los Alamos of Research in the areas of food, fuel, fibers, flowers and forests has seen flat budgets since the 1990’s.

Instead of funding research which in the past has produced effective work in human nutrition and crop health, environmental adaptation and protect, and increased safe production of food and fiber, while enhancing our flowers and forests, we let the primary basic research slowly decline. Rather than funding proactive possibilities in production techniques, we call for more after-the-fact reactive regulation. We of course need both not just one.
“The fresh-cut produce industry is a rapidly growing $10 to $12 billion a year industry, accounting for over 10% of all produce sales in the U.S., and has an annual growth rate in the double digits. However, along with the rapid development of this industry, new problems have arisen in the food safety area. Various sanitizers, which are effective in reducing foodborne pathogen populations on whole produce, are not as effective on fresh-cut produce. Also, the extensive use of these sanitizers has resulted in various foodborne pathogens developing resistance to them. Naturally occurring bacteriophages, or viruses of bacteria, may be viable alternatives to sanitizers.”[i]

This country should be clamoring for additional research in areas yet unimagined. And while we cry for enforcement and regulation, we quietly ignore a looming problem of increased CO2 on current crop yields. We worry about food safety, food, which we may not have in the decades to come. Rather than fund research into alternative crops for bio-fuel production, we remove food from the food supply to feed our energy needs. ARS BARC should be a leader in the study of alternative crops which would allow us to leave corn for food, but instead we allow a dozen researchers a year to retire or leave the service and then do find the money to replace them let alone increase the number of programs.

Critical new systems are needed as well as past enforcement practices. We must fund BARC, and its failing sister the National Agricultural Library, NAL, which stores and distributes the information we need to know to live better , safer, healthier lives.

[i] USDA ARS National Agricultural Research Center – Beltsville:

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