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Virginia Tech professor speaks on Capitol Hill about impact and value of funding science

March 1, 2017

John McDowell
Professor John McDowell will speak to legislators in Washington, D.C., about how funding agricultural research has a tremendous beneficial impact on the U.S. economy. McDowell (third from left) examined how to fight a soybean pathogen that wreaks havoc on U.S. farmers. He worked on the project with graduate students (from left) Kevin Fedkenheuer, Colin Davis, and Mike Fedkenheuer.

Virginia Tech professor John McDowell will meet with Congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to talk about how investing in scientific research has a direct impact on the U.S. economy and can lead to billions of dollars in savings for American agricultural producers.

McDowell, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will highlight a USDA-NIFA funded project where he turned a $9.2 million research project on soybeans into findings that may save farmers as much as $5 billion in the coming years. He worked on the project with fellow Virginia Tech professor Saghai Maroof and researchers from 17 other research universities.

“Although the science is complex, the math is simple: When we make an investment in research and science, the American people and the economy benefit,” McDowell said. “Now more than ever, it’s important that we understand the role that scientists and researchers play in helping America thrive.”

McDowell is speaking as part of a larger initiative that points to achievements of 11 research universities calling for stronger federal support of the food and agricultural sciences.

A new report, “Retaking the Field—Strengthening the Science of Farm and Food Production,” explores research projects funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at each institution.

“The drought in federal funding of food and agricultural research still exists,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. “USDA’s AFRI program, the agency’s premier source of competitively awarded grants, generates the science that keeps our farms healthy. But farmers need a flood of research breakthroughs, and AFRI’s limited budget only allows for a trickle.”

Funding for work like McDowell’s has immediate and vital positive benefits to crops like soybeans, which is the second most planted crop in the U.S.

McDowell examined the genome of a pathogen that wreaks havoc on the soybean industry, killing plants and destroying farmers’ crops. After identifying the DNA and RNA weapons that the pathogen used to attack the soybeans, McDowell was able to look at various strains of soybean plants to determine which ones were able to mount a defense against the pathogen. Once those soybean plants were identified, he was able to use traditional breeding techniques to create a plant that can better fight off an attack from the pathogen.

Across the country, the Extension network is discussing control strategies with farmers and crop advisors and learning how McDowell’s findings can be put to use. At the same time, an undergraduate education network that promotes the importance of agricultural bioinformatics for the next generation of U.S. researchers, producers, and policymakers is underway.

McDowell, who is an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Science Institute, collaborated with a number of his graduate students on the project, including Colin Davis of Carrollton, Ohio, and Michael and Kevin Fedkenheuer of Norwood, New Jersey.

The new “Retaking the Field” report — the second in SoAR’s series — shows how scientists like McDowell are solving some of the thorniest questions in food production despite the USDA’s limited research budget. Even as the research budget for all federal agencies has climbed, USDA’s share has nearly been cut in half.

Tom Grumbly of SoAR notes that AFRI’s funding levels illustrate this trend. The program, which was first established in the 2008 Farm Bill, currently receives only half of its authorized level of $700 million. As a result, the rate in which proposals for AFRI funding receive approval hovers just above 10 percent, far below the rates found in European countries and elsewhere.

“Researchers are solving some of the most important problems that farmers face,” added Grumbly, “from bovine respiratory disease, which infects more than one out of every five beef cattle in feedlots, to rice and wheat rust, which keeps evolving to overcome scientists’ efforts to breed resistance. Too often, their success hinges on whether they secure enough funding to keep the lab doors open. Too much top-quality, high-impact research is unfunded and left on the cutting room floor.”

The other research teams profiled in Retaking the Field include:

  • Cornell University — Susan McCouch and colleagues cross-referenced genetic details with climate and harvest data over the past 40 years for every rice-growing region in the U.S. to help plant breeders develop new weather-specific varieties.
  • Iowa State University — Hongwei Xin and colleagues developed adaptations for cage-free egg production systems that improve indoor-air quality and allow more farmers to respond to consumer demand by adapting cage-free systems.
  • Kansas State University — Barbara Valent and colleagues examined the blast fungus, which has long afflicted rice crops and now infects wheat fields, to determine new ways that plants can resist the pathogen and overcome its ability to evolve.
  • Michigan State University — Gale Strasburg and colleagues examined the impacts of heat stress on turkey muscle development. In developing methods to boost heat stress tolerance, the researchers help farmers produce better meat.
  • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University — Jianmei Yu and colleagues devised a process that removes 98 percent of the major allergens in roasted peanuts using a naturally occurring enzyme and then engineered the process to treat raw peanuts as well.
  • Ohio State University — Chang-Won Lee and colleagues examined and catalogued the microbiome in a chicken’s respiratory tract, the first step in developing management systems that can lower the level of pathogens hurting production.
  • Pennsylvania State University — Gary Felton and colleagues analyzed how the saliva of caterpillars and other insect excretions trigger the defenses of crop plants, providing a new path for plant breeders to explore as they develop more resistant cultivars.
  • Texas A&M University — James E. Womack and colleagues found at least 150 regions of the cattle genome that could be associated with resistance as well as susceptibility to bovine respiratory disease in beef and dairy cattle.
  • University of Nebraska, Lincoln — Daniel C. Ciobanu and colleagues identified genetic markers in sows associated with the earlier onset of puberty, allowing the pigs to produce more litters in their lifetime and increasing production efficiency.
  • University of California, Davis —Jorge Dubcovsky and colleagues have mapped out more than 90,000 genetic markers in wheat plants and identified the markers that are linked to further increases in productivity and resistance to dangerous pathogens. 

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