'Science for the sake of science is not enough from our perspective'

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages
© GettyImages
Animal nutrition, health and feed production remain topics of interest for research grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Details about animal production related projects it helped fund last year were one element of a report​ ​from the NIFA, released last month. 

The Institute's mission in to invest in agricultural research related to advancing the knowledge needed to address environmental, agricultural and social and educational challenges, said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director.

“The work we support is informed by the end user,”​ he told FeedNavigator. “We expect the funding to be put to work.”

The intent in putting the institute’s report together annually was to highlight a selection of projects and demonstrate to members of the public what their tax money funds, he said. One long-term NIFA project spanning several years involved the production of a range of wheat varieties. Those varieties now comprise about 20% of the US wheat acres planted.

It is estimated the strains of wheat developed earn about $1.8 or $1.9bn, said Ramaswamy. “Ultimately what is that doing? It adds to the income of our farmers – they may buy one more tractor, one more combine, go to a local restaurant and the whole effect is phenomenal,”​ he added.

“Science for the sake of science is not enough from our perspective,”​ he said. “It’s about transforming people lives.”

Animal feed, livestock projects

Another goal of the report is to help get people excited about the science involved in the projects funded and the areas covered by the grant program, said Ramaswamy.

“We want to demonstrate that there are critical challenges that we need to continue to evaluate,” ​he said. “It might be a pathogen that is impacting the wheat crop or livestock [or] there are constraints from climate change, insects and pathogens – we want to increase awareness.”

The goals of the institute’s main grant program AFRI were set in the 2014 Farm Bill, he said.

The six areas set as priorities for the grant funding include animal health, production and animal products; agricultural economics and rural communities; agricultural systems and technology; bioenergy, natural resources and the environment; food safety, nutrition and health; and plant health production and plant products, according to institute information. The total funding offered for the year was $311.5m and 2,700 project applications were reviewed.

“In 2017 we provided funding to 693 [projects] and with the ones that come from previous years, there are several thousand projects across America and some globally,”​ said Ramaswamy.

Some of the institute’s recent feed-related projects include efforts at Pennsylvania State University to improve damaged land by raising switchgrass in former strip mines – the plant improves soil quality and produces livestock feed and animal bedding.

A project at the University of the Virgin Islands is focused on raising black soldier flies (BSF) for use in feed in an aquaculture production system, the institute said.

Those focused more on animal production optimization include a research project at Northern Arizona University to identify tick populations in an effort to reduce the transmission of a deadly cattle fever in Texas, the institute said. And a project at the University of Maine is tracking salmon hormones to potentially improve the survival rate of young salmon.

The return on the investment made is about $20-30 per dollar of funding, said Ramaswamy.

“It’s not enough to support science, which is really important, but beyond that science needs to be put to work for humanity and in support of natural resources,” ​he said

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