The Hill: New Strains of Avian Flu Highlight the Need for New Science

By Tom Grumbly (SoAR President), July 06, 2015  

(Published by The Hill

The onset of warmer weather in June has slowed the pace of an unprecedented and underreported avian flu outbreak, providing a welcome respite for poultry farmers. The first two livestock facilities that reported the virus in Minnesota have started to restock and resume operations. But the scale of the epidemic is still breathtaking. 

More than 48 million chickens, turkeys and ducks in 15 states have been destroyed since the middle of December, because, according to the current science, if one bird is found to be infected on a farm, all of the birds on the farm need to be culled and the entire facility needs to be shut down and cleaned.

Farmers in Iowa, the nation’s largest egg-producing state, have lost 40 percent of their egg-laying hens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent almost $500 million fighting the epidemic and compensating farmers for their losses. Economic impact estimates for the country already exceed $1 billion, and experts are worried that the virus will return after the summer when the weather turns cooler.  

Disposal of the bird carcasses has also been a problem. The remains are either composted or burned and then sent by truck to landfills under a strict regimen, a process that took too long to implement. Many farmers, like Merlin DeGroot of Sibley, Iowa, spent the month of May with piles and piles of carcasses on their land. 

New strains of avian flu and other livestock diseases will continue to threaten American farmers, their livelihoods and their communities. Agriculture and food science needs to keep pace so that production can stay on track. Farmers need new vaccines to inoculate their livestock and new ways of handling outbreaks so that they do not have to shut down and reboot their entire operations. New ways to quickly handle the disposal of large quantities of culled livestock are also needed. But the grants that would generate these needed developments are not available. 

Federal funding for agricultural research—not just avian flu grants, but everything including breeding drought-resistant corn varieties to devising new ways to process livestock waste—has remained mostly flat for decades. Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. agricultural R&D budget barely increased by two percent annually. China, on the other hand, doubled its agricultural R&D budget in the same time period.  

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress authorized a new program—the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)—to provide up to $700 million annually for research grants open to scientists from any research institution. The program was never fully funded though. 

The following year, in 2009, the U.S. economic stimulus package provided billions of dollars for research in other fields, but the agricultural and food sciences were left out completely. The current budget for the program is $325 million—less than half of its authorization—and efforts to provide more funding have to compete against a climate of frugal budgeting in Congress.  

The competitive process that AFRI uses to award grants applies the best scientific research to the challenges that farmers and consumers face. Funding is based on merit, and proposals are rigorously peer-reviewed, similar to how the National Institutes of Health awards research grants. Competing for grants guarantees quality research—and a properly funded program will ensure that enough science can be generated to solve the many problems in front of us, in the field and on the dinner table. 

Between 1997 and 2008, for example, the number of children allergic to peanuts has more than tripled. Working under an AFRI grant, a researcher at North Carolina A&T State University figured out how to remove two proteins from peanuts that trigger most allergic reactions. This one development could greatly expand the foods available to families with allergic children, and thus improve their health and wellbeing with a more diverse diet. 

Other AFRI grants are tackling how to adapt pest management techniques in drought and heat spells, how to prevent childhood obesity, and how to process livestock waste. The importance of this program was underscored in September 2014, when the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the US strengthen its public investment in competitive agricultural R&D. 

As Congress moves the federal budget forward this year and next, increasing agriculture research—through a larger AFRI budget—needs to be a priority. Agriculture and food production are linchpins of the US economy. Innovation driven by science is key to sustaining the health and vitality for everyone, those who produce our food and all of us who eat it. 

Grumbly is president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, a non-partisan coalition of scientific, consumer and producer groups working to educate stakeholders about the importance of funding agricultural research. He has held leadership roles in the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the White House Office of Management and Budget and was undersecretary of energy during the Clinton Administration.

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