Melha Mellata, food science and human nutrition faculty member, spoke to members of Congress Nov. 2, highlighting her research that was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Contributed photo.

Report highlights food and ag science breakthroughs at Iowa State University and 10 other universities

AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University and 10 other prominent research institutions have joined with the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation in urging increased federal support of food and agricultural science.

Their new report, Retaking the Field—Empowering Agricultural Sciences for Health, explores the success of research projects funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the flagship competitive grants program of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“The Retaking the Field report illustrates the kind of innovative food and nutrition-centered research ongoing at our universities and the significant benefits possible for the public good,” said Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It’s a great example of universities joining in a common message calling for increased federal investment in research in food, agriculture and natural resources.”

In the new Retaking the Field report, Iowa State researcher Melha Mellata outlines efforts to protect the health of the nation’s poultry flocks and, in turn, prevent foodborne illnesses in the nation’s consumers.

research projects
Melha Mellata

“Our project studied the food source of harmful E. coli bacteria called ExPEC that cause serious diseases, such as bladder and bloodstream infections,” said Mellata, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition. “We developed and evaluated vaccines that would eliminate the presence of diverse strains of Salmonella and ExPEC in chickens. While helping poultry farmers preserve their flocks, these vaccines would also protect people from disease and save billions of dollars in human health care costs.”

The new report looks at how scientists have tackled three separate crises that have immense economic impact for the United States and the world:

  • Nutrition-related diseases cost Americans billions of dollars in medical expenditures each year. Estimated costs for high cholesterol are $34.5 billion; obesity, $147 billion; diabetes, $176 billion; heart disease, $193.4 billion;
  • Zoonotic diseases — those that plague both animals and humans — resulted globally in $20 billion in direct economic losses and more than $200 billion in indirect losses from 2000 to 2010; and
  • Foodborne illness costs Americans $15.6 billion annually according to USDA estimates.

“Scientists have made tremendous strides in keeping our food safe and nutritious,” said Thomas Grumbly, SoAR’s president. “But the federal investment in food science has remained flat as the number of threats to our food system continues to climb. The 2018 Farm Bill will set agricultural funding priorities for the next five years. We all need research to be at the top of this agenda.”

The report — the third in SoAR’s series — shows how scientists are solving some of these problems in public health despite the USDA’s limited research budget. Since 2009, USDA has received less than 4 percent of the federal research budget, down from almost 40 percent in 1940.

AFRI presents a strong case for how this lack of funding leaves so much important science “on the cutting-room floor.” Proposals are subject to peer review to make sure that the questions in agriculture and food science can be answered.

Since the program’s inception 10 years ago, only one quarter of all of the grants rated as high-value science have been funded, due to lack of resources. Currently, the program’s annual budget is $375 million, slightly more than half the level authorized in the past two Farm Bills — $700 million.

“Federal agriculture policy is at a place where program budgets are ‘authorized’ in the Farm Bill at levels that are never reached when the federal budgets are negotiated,” Grumbly commented. “There are truly urgent needs to produce more food, fiber and fuel while consuming fewer resources and protecting public health in the face of existing and emerging threats.”

Along with Mellata, featured researchers and their teams working to discover solutions include:

  • Robert Hutkins, University of Nebraska-Lincoln — How to enable beneficial bacteria to thrive in the gut and reduce inflammation.
  • Bradley P. Marks, Michigan State University — How to reduce the risk of Salmonella contamination in ready-to-eat food products.
  • Lisa Mauer, Purdue University — How to both optimize delivery and stabilize thiamin in food products.
  • Carmen I. Moraru, Cornell University — How to develop nanoengineered non-stick surfaces to block bacterial contamination during food processing.
  • Paul Morley, DVM, Colorado State University — How to use “metagenomics” sequencing to better understand factors influencing antimicrobial resistance in animal food production.
  • Nitin Nitin, University of California, Davis — How to develop innovative approaches to prevent bacterial contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Federico Rey, University of Wisconsin-Madison — How different gut microbes affect the ways that flavonoids are metabolized to improve heart health.
  • Gary Perdew, Pennsylvania State University — How broccoli interacts with the gastrointestinal lining to improve the gut biome and digestive health.
  • Shengmin Sang, North Carolina A&T State University — How to develop flavonoid-enriched foods to prevent and treat diabetes.
  • H. Morgan Scott, DVM, Texas A&M University — How to develop and implement effective interventions and best practices for antibiotic stewardship in beef and dairy production.

About the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation
The SoAR Foundation leads a non-partisan coalition representing more than 6 million farming families, 100,000 scientists, hundreds of colleges and universities as well as consumers, veterinarians, and others. SoAR educates stakeholders about the importance of food and agricultural research to feed America and the world and advocates for full funding of USDA’s Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI). SoAR supports increased federal investments to encourage top scientists to create agricultural solutions that improve public health, strengthen national security, and enhance U.S. economic competitiveness. For more information, please visit www.supportagresearch.org.

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Editor’s Note: The new Retaking the Field report can be downloaded at
http://supportagresearch.org/retakingthefield/