Thursday, February 19, 2009

Invasive species, food supply, and funding

I have written extensively on this site about the plight of US Agricultural Research. My efforts include the creation of a 501(c)4,, to advocate on behalf of the people and programs of the National Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, (BARC) , Maryland. If you are interested in supporting this effort please contact me.

A recent article in the Washington Post begins to bring the message home; of the connection between our food supply and the effects of invasive species while never mentioning the largest agricultural research facility in the world in the Post’s own backyard. Of course it is not only the flagship of the US Agricultural Service that is in trouble but the whole national system. Trying to get something to happen is an effort intense action going nowhere for lack of public support. What will it take for us to prod the administration and Congress into action that funds food research which is a necessary part of our quality of life?

There seems to be an assumption that someone somewhere will take care of future research on behalf of the people of the United States. We are complacent even though there is no longer funding for our National Agriculture Library (NAL) which would allow subscriptions to foreign scientific journals or add to the special collections. And when it comes to our food supply, we, the public fail to be concerned about the lack of funding to support basic identification services at our borders, while allowing our irreplaceable systematic collections to atrophy. Where is our national food plan? Who is concerned about the impact of CO2 on food production? Where is stimulus funding for long term food research? Where is the special interest group which represents the general public’s interest?

For two decades now, the National Research Center for Food, Feed, Fiber, Fuel, Flowers and Forests has been in a slow chronic decline losing almost half its researchers, from almost 500 to around 255 today. How does this make sense? Who do we think we are going to get our next meal from? Do we really think that large international corporations are going to do public service research and offer the technology to the private sector as USDA does now? Who are we kidding?

To top this off we give no money in the current spending spree to USDA ARS programs (money will be coming for building and infrastructure we hope) such as ARS climate research, and we totally ignore the impact of invasive species on every ecosystem service. “A virulent new version of a deadly fungus is ravaging wheat in Kenya's most fertile fields and spreading beyond Africa to threaten one of the world's principal food crops, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.” [By Sharon Schmickle, Special to The Washington Post Wednesday, February 18, 2009; Page A08] . The US rust collection is without a curator presently, and what are our politicians and leaders doing about it? Invasive species whether pathogens, insects or animals reduce crop yields or destroy natural ecosystems both of which our country needs. The article continues: “Coming on the heels of grain scarcity and food riots last year, the budding epidemic exposes the fragility of the food supply in poor countries. It is also a reminder of how vulnerable the ever-growing global population is to the pathogens that inevitably surface somewhere on the planet.”

Research at BARC is ongoing with soybean rust already here in the US. Citrus greening threatens the orange juice supply of Florida (Citrus Greening: What ARS Is Doing) and ARS is struggling for funding. Do we think that we can buy food as we currently buy oil…from somewhere else at a reduced price? I note how well that is working for fuel thus far. Do we think that invasive species are not a threat and that we will simply trip over an alternative to the destroyed crops or ecosystems? Where is the public outrage? Do we think that these problems will not come here? How then do we explain fire ants, and the new crazy ant, or even the aforementioned soybean rust now plaguing the south eastern US? While we search for bombs, we let the silent invaders in, not because USDA does not try to stop them but because we have no commitment to fully fund the efforts of USDA and other federal agencies. Invasive species are Congressional afterthoughts if they think about them at all. And 22 million acres of dead ash trees in the Midwest, casualties of an invasive species? Will we find away to coordinate our efforts to keep our quality of life?

The point is that invasive species reach across traditional disciplines and do not fit neatly in to pre-described boxes. And our public notions of agriculture are inadequate to the present reality of an interconnected food chain which stretches from farms to natural areas and back again in intricate feed back loops. To think of agriculture separately from natural areas is to invite chaos at a policy level. Our food does not come from a different planet it comes from the system of systems which is our ecosystems linked together.

The following is a list of links:
Saturday, February 07, 2009 The Continuing Loss of Scientific Infrastructure - Decline of Systematics
Monday, June 30, 2008 Invasive Plant Research and Partnership
Friday, June 13, 2008 BARC & NAL: The front line in the attack of killer tomatoes and other agents of terror
Thursday, May 01, 2008 Foods, Fuels, Fibers, Flowers & Forests
Tuesday, April 22, 2008 Congressional call for a plan for the Beltsville "National" Agricultural Research Center & the National Agricultural Library
Friday, March 28, 2008 BARC & NAL: Funding challenges continue
Saturday, January 12, 2008 Invasive Species & Climate Change

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