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Research

Each day, the work of USDA scientists and researchers touches the lives of all Americans: from the farm field to the kitchen table and from the air we breathe to the energy that powers our country. USDA science is on the cutting edge, helping to protect, secure, and improve our food, agricultural and natural resources systems.

Over the past six years, USDA research has supported America's farmers and ranchers in their work to produce a safe and abundant food supply for more than 100 years. This work has helped feed the nation and sustain an agricultural trade surplus since the 1960s. Since 2009, USDA has invested $4.32 billion in research and development grants. Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research now returns over $20 to our economy.

Transferring Technology and Sharing Information

USDA continues to aggressively partner with private companies, universities and others to transfer technology to the marketplace to benefit consumers and stakeholders.

  • In the past six years, research by USDA scientists has resulted in 758 patent applications filed, 335 patents issued, and 953 new inventions disclosures covering a wide range of topics and discoveries. In fiscal year 2014 alone, USDA received 83 patents, filed 119 patent applications, and disclosed 117 new inventions. And, since 2009, USDA-funded grantees have applied for 295 patents, developed 43 new crop cultivars, and identified 1,087 new inventions.
  • Helping drive these innovations, over the past six years, USDA has executed 486 new Cooperative Research and Development Agreements with outside investigators, which includes universities and other organizations. In fiscal year 2014 alone, USDA had 267 active Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, including 102 with small businesses.
  • Published several datasets online, including patented technologies for the environment, plant health, crops, and food processing. USDA also provided raw data from key systems such as the National Agricultural Library, Plant Hardiness Zone Map (PHZM), and Germplasm Resource Information Network (GRIN). The raw data can then be leveraged by new tools. As an example, ARS data from the National Nutrient Databank System were incorporated into the Super Tracker diet and exercise tool for the general public, which now has over 4.3 million registered users.

Enhancing the Productivity of American Agriculture and Our Food Supply

  • Revealed the genetic blueprints of a host of plants and animals, including the genomes of apples, pigs, and turkeys, and in 2012, they furthered understanding of the tomato, bean, wheat and barley genomes-key drivers in developing the resilience of those crops to feed growing populations in the face of climate change.
    1. USDA researchers created the Maize Genome Database, an important tool to help farmers improve traits in this vital crop.
    2. USDA-funded researchers have used knowledge gained from the genomes of these crops to develop improved varieties. Approximately 20 percent of the harvested wheat acreage and 4 percent of the harvested barley acreage in the United States come from wheat and barley varieties funded by these projects.
  • Mapped the bovine genome to help produce cattle with improved production traits. This research has the potential to help in finding cures for human diseases.
  • Found the primary site where the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease begins infection in cattle and used that new understanding to develop an improved vaccine against the disease.
  • Helped to double milk production efficiency, while enhancing environmental sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas and waste production from dairy operations.
  • Researched the causes behind the decline in pollinators, such as mites, bacteria, pesticides, and management practices, while also working on new strategies to sustain pollinator health.
  • Developed remote sensing and mapping tools to visualize data in support of agricultural policy and business decision making. CropScape and VegScape, animated U.S. crop progress and topsoil moisture maps, along with other resources, help experts assess farmland data.
  • Developed and released 398 new plant varieties and enhanced germplasm lines in 2014 as part of an effort to help create new markets and enhance economic opportunities for rural America. Since 2008, USDA plant breeders and researchers have developed and released 714 new plant varieties and enhanced germplasm lines. USDA genebanks have distributed more than 1 million samples to researchers and breeders in the United States and abroad.
  • Surveyed millions of producers to ensure its policies reflect innovations on America's farms and ranchers. The 2012 Census of Agriculture measured many new practices, such as on-farm renewable energy production, high-speed internet access, and organic agricultural production.
  • Led efforts for global food security through the President's Feed the Future Initiative under the U.S. Agency for International Development. This initiative addresses chronic food insecurity in developing countries, primarily Africa and the Middle East. This effort spawned a goat improvement program that applies modern research tools to improve food animal health, breeding, and production in Africa.

Improving Nutrition and Fighting Obesity

  • Participated in an international team that has found a way to boost the nutritional value of broccoli, tomatoes, corn, and other staple crops like oats and rice.
  • Researched ways to slow the trend of childhood obesity. USDA researchers have discovered that eating a protein-rich breakfast increases the brain's level of dopamine, a chemical that helps reduce food cravings and overeating later in the day.
  • Discovered that flour made from chardonnay grape seeds may lower cholesterol and reduce weight gain. Grape seeds are a waste byproduct of the wine making process. The sale of grape seeds for milling into flour has the potential to offer an additional revenue stream for wine producers. Human clinical trials are underway at the Mayo Clinic.
  • Created the Food Environment Atlas, which offers an interactive tool for mapping a wide range of county-level indicators of the food environment, food assistance, and affordability indicators such as distance to full-service grocery stores, incomes and poverty rates, health outcomes, and State-level participation rates for food assistance programs. This tool provides a spatial overview of a community's ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so.
  • Developed a new microwave assisted pasteurization system that can inactivate bacterial and viral pathogens that can make people sick. The new technology is currently being used by food processors to test a variety of packaged food products to ensure desirable quality and safety.
  • Awarded more than $20 million in grants to those working with growers and producers to help reduce foodborne hazards associated with produce.
  • Developed a field-deployable nano-biosensor that can rapidly and reliably detect avian influenza in poultry. This technology enables the poultry industry to ensure product safety and security and minimize the testing cost.

Conserving Natural Resources and Combating Climate Change

  • Examined the potential impacts of a suite of climate scenarios on U.S. crop production. Studies like these will help policymakers, farmers, industry leaders and others better understand the effects of and adapt to a changing climate on America's crop production.
  • Began to develop rice and corn crops that are drought- and flood-resistant, and help improve the productivity of soil.
  • Created i-Tree, urban forest management software to help cities understand the value of urban trees through carbon sequestration, erosion protection, energy conservation and water filtration.
  • Conducted research on the use of wood as a building material, helping companies meet green building design standards and creating jobs using forest products. USDA partnered with WoodWorks to train architects, engineers and builders about the benefits of advanced wood building materials, resulting in 58 projects presently under construction, and over $15.6 million in incremental lumber sales. USDA scientists also worked with Major League Baseball to reduce the occurrence of broken baseball bats.
  • Developed online tools aimed at providing farmers with existing weather data and other information and offers that information to farmers in formats they can use to manage their crops, such as what, when, and where to plant; fertilizing; irrigating; and more. The tools are helping Corn Belt farmers improve their resilience and profitability amid the irregular weather conditions of a changing climate.
  • Supported families managing through tough economic times by helping residents save energy at home and conserve water, with a program run by Cooperative Extension and our land-grant university partners. Participants in the program saved an average of $350 per year on utility bills.
  • Developed and released a new edition of the Plant Hardiness Zone Map (PHZM), which combines leading-edge geographical information analytical technology and traditional horticultural and climatological scientific expertise to create a dynamic, Web-accessible, multi-functional interactive information resource. The PHZM Website attracted more than 500,000 visitors during the first 2 weeks after release and more than 2 million visitors to date.
  • Continued to work with the city of Salinas, California, and its landfill, to develop a large pilot-scale biorefinery that converts rural and urban solid waste into ethanol, biogas, compost, and value-added recyclables. Each ton of food processing waste at the landfill currently can be converted into 65 gallons of ethanol. If the same biomass source is converted to liquefied natural biogas, which has the same burn rate as 100 percent ethanol, it yields 108 gallons of transportation fuel, which can be used to power diesel turbines. Together, USDA and the city are creating an "energy park" that converts both agricultural biomass and curb-collected garbage into bioenergy in the same biorefinery, which demonstrates the facility's remarkable flexibility in handling and processing different feedstock supplies.
  • Developed a series of satellite remote sensing tools that will help improve agricultural drought detection, increasing our ability to reduce and prevent the impact of drought regionally and globally. The maps are available online at the U.S. Drought Portal at www.drought.gov.
  • Accelerated the development of, and systems for, the production of advanced biofuels for automotive, marine and aviation use from forest and agricultural waste and non-food, non-feed dedicated biomass feedstocks (perennial grasses, woody biomass, energy cane, sorghum). For example, a team of USDA crop breeders working on one of seven large USDA regional bioenergy system projects has released for commercialization high-yielding switchgrass cultivars adapted to marginal lands in the central US.
  • Worked with the forest pulp industry to "bolt-on" capacity to make biobased products in existing mills to diversify product lines, increase revenues, and create and preserve jobs in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast.
  • Developed sustainable and affordable systems for harvesting beetle-killed trees from accessible areas of the ~42 million acres of damaged, dead, and dying trees in the Rocky Mountain west for processing into fuel and products.
  • Supported research for the production of highly ordered meso-porous carbon (HOMC) from plants like the hybrid willow, eastern white pine, and some grasses. These HOMC nanobiomaterials can be used for hydrogen storage in fuel cells, for energy storage in lithium batteries and super-capacitors. There is additional application in the absorption of toxic substances.