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USDA launches National Institute of Food and Agriculture and a New Era in Agricultural Science

Oct 08, 2009

Today we are formally launching a new enterprise in USDA science, a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  NIFA will be a real agent of transformation in how we do science at USDA, not just in this new agency, but across the board.  As I reflect on this pivotal moment for USDA science, I am reminded of another transformative episode in USDA history:  the Morrill Act of 1862 that created the land-grant university system that has been the scaffold for building the research enterprise we have today.

Most of us know the basic history of the Morrill Act – passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862 to establish land-grant universities “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”  The 15 years it took to pass this Act, represent the steadfast political will and tremendous commitment from all the stakeholders for American agriculture, who recognized the importance in creating the land-grant system.  In 1862’s agrarian society, the land-grant universities were instrumental in developing new technologies and also putting those technologies into practice by farmers.  This allowed us to improve our agricultural productivity and establish ourselves as leaders in a global economy.

Today, we need to continue to focus on improving agriculture productivity – but we see a broader range of challenges we have the capability to solve: sustainability of our natural resources, energy independence, child health, food safety, and global hunger and food security.  In launching NIFA today, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack are following Lincoln’s example and putting science at the forefront to create a better world.Secretary Vilsack often refers to the USDA as an “every day, every way” department.  One way in which USDA is working to solve every day problems that American citizens face is through agricultural science.  I am excited to say that right now we have a great opportunity to not only transform the way we approach science, but also to transform how we apply that science to improve the nation’s, and even the world’s, quality of life.

There are three keys to this transformation:  We will frame our issues in terms of big, bold challenges that require us to enlarge the scope of our work; we’ll be working on large projects where we see great potential for breakthroughs on a scale we haven’t imagined before; and we’ll pick research where we know the impact on human health and wellbeing can be tangible and meaningful.  In order to ensure we are on track and setting appropriate research priorities using these principles, I have begun a top-to-bottom review of all USDA science assets.

NIFA will work with the best and brightest scientists to find innovative solutions to global problems.  With a timely, integrated approach and collaboration with other federal agencies, NIFA will also serve as a vital contributor in science policy decision-making.  In a show of support for NIFA, officials from the White House, Departments of Energy and State, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration will be attending our launch event today with Secretary Vilsack.  I encourage you to watch the webcast of today’s event to learn how NIFA will work with these federal science partners to leverage our research investment to achieve maximum impact.

While the focus today was on launching NIFA, my commitment is to transform science at USDA more broadly and more systematically to deliver results to the American people.  I believe it is important that we refocus our science resources in ways that can bring fundamental change to the way we address some of the most vexing of society’s problems.  NIFA’s structure, for example, will be centered around problem-specific scientific disciplines, which allows us to better identify the research needed to yield scientific breakthroughs.  I see five key priority areas in which NIFA will focus significant resources to enhance agricultural sustainable production and global competitiveness:

·         Support for new science to boost U.S. agricultural production and improve the global capacity to meet the growing demand for food, will allow us to address global food security and hunger facing many vulnerable populations around the world.

·         NIFA will help fund the creation of scientific information that producers need to plan and make decisions to adapt to changing environments caused by climate change.

·         In support of President Obama’s goal of energy independence, NIFA will work to develop and sustainable energy source through biofuels, biomass and bio-based products research.

·         By ensuring that nutritious foods are affordable and available and that families are able to make informed, science-based decisions about their health, NIFA will work to combat childhood obesity.

·        NIFA’s support of new research of microbial resistance and development of new food processing technologies will help ensure that American’s have access to a safe food supply.

Agricultural science lays the foundation to solving your everyday problems, but in order to realize those benefits we will need that steadfast will and commitment. Today was a groundbreaking day for all of us at USDA as we refocus our science resources and efforts.  From agricultural production, nutrition and food safety to energy independence and the sustainability of our natural resources, I am confident that NIFA’s investment in science will help secure America’s future.

Rajiv Shah,

USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics