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USDA Results: 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.

Since 2009, USDA has invested over $19 billion in research and development. 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 federal research to the marketplace to benefit consumers and stakeholders.

  • Since 2009, research by USDA scientists has resulted in 882 patent applications filed, 428 patents issued, and 1,152 new invention disclosures covering a wide range of topics and discoveries. In fiscal year 2015 alone, USDA received 94 patents, filed 125 patent applications, and disclosed 122 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, USDA since 2009 has executed 545 new Cooperative Research and Development Agreements with outside investigators, which include universities and other organizations. In fiscal year 2015 alone, USDA had 301 active Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, including 106 with small businesses.
  • Under the leadership of USDA, the U.S. Government was a founding partner of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Initiative, an international effort that "supports the proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible and usable for unrestricted use worldwide to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring world food security." The raw data from such efforts can be leveraged by new tools. For example, USDA partnered with Microsoft in 2015 to launch a worldwide competition that provided Internet developers access to more than 100 years of USDA datasets so they could develop solutions to help farmers, communities, and businesses better adapt to changes in climate. USDA has:
    1. Opened 600 of the department's 800 datasets, including patented technologies for the environment, plant health, crops, and food processing.
    2. Established the "PubAg" online portal to USDA-authored agricultural research publications. At launch, it delivered over 42,709 full-text journal articles by USDA staff and included nearly 1,346,186 citations. The Library has been adding about 20,000 citations each month since the launch.
  • The Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program (the Borlaug Fellowship Program) promotes food security and economic growth by providing training and collaborative research opportunities to fellows from developing and middle-income countries. Borlaug fellows are scientists, researchers, or policymakers who are in the early or middle stages of their careers.
    1. USDA's Borlaug Fellowship Program has provided training and collaborative research opportunities to approximately 700 scientists and policymakers from developing and middle-income countries, focusing on a wide range of agriculture-related topics including agronomy, veterinary science, nutrition, food safety, sanitary and phytosanitary issues, natural resource management, and biotechnology.

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 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.
    3. USDA-funded researchers have identified 40 new genes resistant to Ug99, new strains of stem rust that have recently emerged in East Africa and are spreading rapidly. They were identified from extensive trials in Kenya and Ethiopia over the last decade and are now being bred into U.S. grain.
  • Surveyed and released important data on topics ranging from land-use and planting intentions to production yields that help farmers and ranchers make informed decisions about what crops to plant, heard management, and other important production and business decisions.
  • Used resources from the National Plant Germplasm System to breed and release 'Mesa' and 'RWA 1758', aphid-resistant varieties of barley that have rejuvenated High Plains production of feed barley in environmentally sound agriculture.
  • 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. In fact, the Obama Administration's "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators" that was released in 2015 was based upon recommendations from a task force led by USDA along with partners at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Developed a molecular system to prevent the psyllids from feeding on citrus sap, preventing them from transmitting the citrus greening bacteria from one citrus tree to another.
  • Rapidly developed a molecular test to detect the avian virus that swept across 15 states in 2014-2015 and quickly engineered a vaccine.
  • 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 USDA 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 Public Health and Fighting Obesity

  • USDA has been a leader in establishing a White House Action Plan to Combat Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). In May 2012, USDA sponsored a three-day Antibiotic Resistance Workshop to work with outside stakeholders and Federal partners, reviewing current antibiotic use and identifying knowledge and data gaps. USDA's AMR Action Plan (PDF, 322KB) presents USDA's vision to address this challenge. USDA researchers are also working to find alternatives to antibiotics that still keep food animals safe and healthy.
  • 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.
  • Funded research that has found a way to treat peanuts and reduce their allergens by 98 to 100 percent. Peanut allergy is one of the most common causes of food-related anaphylaxis and affects about 2.8 million Americans, including 400,000 school-aged children. The research, which has proven effective in peanuts and shows promise in wheat, also has the potential to reduce foodborne allergens in tree nuts.
  • 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.
  • Conducted research that found that students who ate breakfast were more efficient at solving math problems. Brain activity measured in children who skipped breakfast showed they required greater mental effort to do the same mathematical processing as those who ate breakfast. These results provide evidence for the beneficial effects of breakfast on learning in school-aged children, and provide support for policies that seek to improve school performance through better nutrition.
  • 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, 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 $14 million in research that focuses on reducing 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.
  • Found that natural compounds often found in popular kitchen ingredients like oregano, cinnamon, and vinegar can be used to sanitize leafy greens. Researchers incorporated plant essential oils into edible, plant-based films that are added into salad bags and the vapors from the oils kill the bacteria in the bags during storage.
  • USDA was recognized as the worldwide leader in published research during the 2006-2010 time frame in the areas of salmonellosis, avian influenza, and mycobacterial animal diseases in a 2012 report from STAR-IDAZ, a global network for animal disease.

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.
  • 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.
  • Developed the "blind inlet," a new conservation practice, to reduce agricultural pollutant discharges from upper Midwestern glacial landscapes characterized by the presence of potholes. The use of this new practice reduces nitrogen and phosphorus losses from Midwestern glacial landscapes that include farmed potholes.
  • Developed "Adapt-N," low-cost soil assessment and greenhouse accounting tools which make it possible for farmers to improve nitrogen use efficiency - thus improving farm profits - while also reducing environmental losses. Adapt-N was voted by growers as the new product of 2015 by Agro Professional magazine.
  • Invented an automated, variable-rate, air-assisted, precision sprayer that provides an environmentally responsible approach that reduces average pesticide use by up to 68 percent. That also results in an annual average cost savings of $230 per acre in floral nurseries and orchards.
  • 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.

Strengthening Research, Institutions and Integrity

USDA has restructured its science agencies to maximize their effectiveness and efficiency, as well as make utmost use of our partners in the scientific community.

  • Strengthened scientific integrity protections. In 2011, USDA became one of the first Departments to establish a scientific integrity policy in response to 2009 Presidential memorandum. REE Under Secretary Catherine Woteki has since revised the scientific integrity policy as a Departmental Regulation with additional substantive detail; provided policy handbooks and training to more than 14,000 employees; established the full-time position of Departmental Scientific Integrity Officer within the Office of the Chief Scientist; and made information about the number and resolutions of alleged misconduct publicly available on USDA's website.
  • Established the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in 2009 as a replacement for the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service that would consolidate all USDA-funded extramural food and agricultural research programs. NIFA currently funds more than $1.5 billion in research, education and extension to 59 state agricultural experiment stations (i.e., the research arm of land-grant colleges and universities), 63 schools of forestry, 18 historically black land-grant colleges, 27 colleges of veterinary medicine, and tribal colleges and other institutions and individual scientists.
    1. Since 2009, NIFA has provided $10.4 billion to support research, education, and extension programs at Land-Grant universities and other partner organizations. Programs provide funding for projects that are selected through a competitive peer review as well as capacity support through legislated formula distributions. These capacity programs leveraged on average over $3 billion in additional resources per year from State, local, and other funders.
  • Renewed partnerships with land grant universities. An October 2015 report by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) found some $8.4 billion in infrastructure and deferred maintenance at buildings and supporting facilities at agriculture schools authorized to receive USDA funding. NIFA and the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) have worked closely with the committee and the APLU/BAA to develop a balanced and achievable approach to replace aging and ineffective or unsafe or inadequate research facilities through both the Farm Bill and the appropriations process.
  • Played an integral role in organizing and launching the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which Congress created to increase and support innovative science addressing today's food and agriculture challenges, to complement and further USDA efforts, and to build public-private partnerships critical to boosting America's agricultural economy.
  • Strengthened the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), which identifies and prioritizes science and research issues that need to be addressed by USDA scientists and researchers. OCS has issued an annual action plan that provides a foundation for prioritizing research; created a USDA Science Council of scientific leaders from across USDA to facilitate cross-departmental coordination and collaboration; and moved from a largely rotating senior staff to a more permanent employment structure.
  • Supported cutting edge innovation through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program which encourages American businesses with 500 employees or fewer to engage in high-growth research and development that has the potential for commercialization for projects that enhance American agriculture, rural America and the environment. Since 2009, USDA's SBIR program has awarded nearly 850 research and development grants to American-owned, independently operated, for-profit businesses, allowing hundreds of small businesses to explore their technological potential, and providing an incentive to profit from the commercialization of innovative ideas.
    1. Past examples of successful USDA-funded SBIR projects include Eldertide LLC's research to cultivate elderberry varieties with high antioxidant levels that are now harvested and marketed for their anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
    2. Micronic Technologies has developed a sustainable water desalination and purification technology. Its water treatment system, MicroDesal, is capable of taking water from any source and cleaning it to potable water standards. See more examples of SBIR-funded projects in the SBIR brochure (PDF, 2.15MB).