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This is Why USDA Research Helps Everyone

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Dr. Gale Buchanan, former dean of the College of Agriculture at both Auburn and Georgia, has written a stunning new book entitled Feeding the World – Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century.

Buchanan’s book is a must read for all of us. He quotes Daniel Webster: “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”

Buchanan started out as a young person working with his father on their family farm. His father urged his son to seek answers to questions involving agriculture and as a result, he earned B.S., M.S., and PhD degrees. He spent years researching weed science. He finished his career as Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics (REE) and Chief Scientist for USDA.

Farm Bill debate
In the upcoming farm bill, the media focus will be on subsidies to “rich farmers,” crop insurance payments, and trade issues. But the most important issue of all, and one which will receive little publicity, is research.

It is disappointing the media, political leaders and even commodity groups will not place a high emphasis on agriculture research.
Buchanan’s book reviews the history of agriculture and the emergence of agricultural research. No book on research would be worth reading unless a chapter was devoted to the land grant system and its impact on agriculture research. Buchanan quotes himself, “The 1862 Morrill (Land-Grant) Act changed forever how higher education is perceived in this country. This legislation unleashed a hunger for learning by ordinary, average people that has not been fully satisfied to this day.” Other chapters deal with how difficult it is to obtain research money.

Many in the present administration, and particularly leaders in Congress, will see research budgets as easy targets for reduction of spending. This is incredibly shortsighted.

Chapter Six outlines the success of agriculture research and how it helped feed the planet, since 1950 (2.5 billion people) to 50 years later (6 billion). Today we must feed more than 7 billion individuals. Research, both public and private, has allowed our corn yields to go from 24.3 bushels per acre in 1866 (approximately 731 million bushels) to around 175 bushels per acre in 2016 (15.1 billion bushels).

Buchanan reviews the success of increasing production of soybeans, cotton, peanuts, wheat, barley and many others. These statistics are fascinating and on page 113 of his book he publishes a table on agricultural exports, imports and the balance of trade surplus compiled from USDA and the Department of Commerce.

As he points out, “Agricultural commodities are one of the few bright spots in the US balance of trade.”

Preliminary hearings are already beginning for the next farm bill.

Incredible success stories
Buchanan writes about incredible success stories created by USDA research. One involved farmers in Wisconsin in the 1930s, who found their dairy cows hemorrhaging after eating sweet clover. A dairy farmer took a dead heifer which lacked blood clotting capacity to a veterinarian who in turn urged the dairy farmer to visit the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. USDA research scientists determined that improperly cured sweet clover hay was inducing hemorrhaging due to a lack of a certain chemical in the blood. After research and collaboration with medical personnel it was determined that controlling hemorrhaging in cattle might control clotting of blood in humans. Thus, the first anti-coagulant was born and it turned out that this human medicine is now used under the popular brand name your doctor may have recommended – Coumadin.

Another great story from USDA research has its beginnings in the U.K. We all have been taught in school that Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish research scientist, discovered the antibiotic penicillin. What has not been widely known is that USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Peoria, IL, determined how to mass produce the antibiotic, which the Scottish and British scientists could not. The USDA Peoria researchers discovered a strain of penicillium on a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria garbage can. This USDA research allowed for the mass production of penicillin, which has saved millions of lives.

Buchanan has many stories about USDA research successes. The most important thing you can do after reading this story is to read USDA’s Timeline of 144 Years of Ag Research.

USDA research has changed the world. Let us hope Congress will not be shortsighted regarding agriculture research dollars for the future. Thank you, Dr. Buchanan!

(This article first ran in Farm Futures on July 17. 2017)
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