Skip to main content

Research and Science

From fostering continued economic growth to adapting to the effects of climate change and addressing food security, the United States can continue to be a leader in global agriculture. 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.

The challenges facing agriculture, natural resources, and conservation are immense and can be addressed through robust research enterprise and educational programs. USDA intramural and extramural science helps to protect, secure, and improve our food, agricultural and natural resources systems.

Strengthening Our Research System

USDA has refocused its science agencies to ensure the most effective and efficient use of its resources, while leveraging the strengths of our partners across the scientific community.

The Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) coordinates USDA research, education and Extension with scientists and researchers across the federal government and university and private partners, to make the best use of taxpayer investments. In 2012, OCS continued focus on the Research, Education and Economics Action Plan (PDF, 486KB) and identified seven priority research topics:

  • Global Food Supply and Security
  • Climate and Energy Needs
  • Sustainable Use of Natural Resources
  • Nutrition and Childhood Obesity
  • Food Safety
  • Education and Science Literacy
  • Rural-urban Interdependence/Rural Prosperity

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority.

The Economic Research Service (ERS), through science-based economic research and analysis, informs public policy and other decisions about agriculture, food, rural development, and environmental challenges.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) conducts hundreds of surveys every year and prepares reports covering virtually every aspect of U.S. agriculture.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports research, education and Extension programs in the Land-Grant University System and other partner organizations.

Enhancing the Productivity of American Agriculture and Ensuring the Safety of our Food Supply

USDA invests in research, development, and outreach of new varieties and technologies to mitigate animal/plant diseases and increase productivity, sustainability, and product quality. USDA research has supported America's farmers and ranchers in their work to produce a safe and abundant food supply for over 100 years. This work has helped feed the nation and sustain an agricultural trade surplus since the 1960s.

An additional focus is to establish more sustainable systems that enhance crop and animal health. Our scientists and university partners have 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.

NASS has developed animated U.S. crop progress and topsoil moisture maps, along with other resources, to help experts assess farmland data. USDA researchers also created the Maize Genome Database, an important tool to help farmers improve traits in a crop vital to the world. Meeting growing global demand for food, fiber, and biofuel requires robust investment in agricultural research and development (R&D) from both public and private sectors. USDA is a leader in remote sensing and mapping to visualize data in support of agricultural policy and business decision making as well as program operation. We ranked first worldwide among research institutions publishing on priority diseases in animal health including salmonellosis, avian influenza, mycobacterial disease, coccidiosis, campylobacterosis, mastitis and others.

USDA conducts and supports science that informs decisions and policies contributing to a safe food supply and the reduction of foodborne hazards. Our scientists found the primary site where the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease begins infection in cattle and developed an improved vaccine against the disease. They are also working on new strategies to control mites and other major honey bee problems such as colony collapse disorder.

Improving Nutrition and Confronting Obesity

USDA builds the evidence base for food-based and physical activity strategies and develops effective education activities to promote health and reduce malnutrition and obesity in children and high-risk populations. For example, ARS evaluated school characteristics associated with healthier or less healthy food preparation practices and offerings and found that the school nutrition environment could be improved by requiring food service managers to hold nutrition-related college degrees, pass a food service training program, and by participating in a school-based nutrition program such as USDA Team Nutrition.

USDA-supported science is investigating the causes of childhood obesity so that our country can address the epidemic. In these efforts, USDA supports nutrition education programs and encourages Americans to consume more nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables. Our scientists are part of an international team that has found a way to boost the nutritional value of broccoli, tomatoes and corn, and have worked to find ways to bolster the nutritional content of other staple crops like oats and rice. USDA research has supported these efforts, showing how healthy foods can often cost less than foods that are high in saturated fat, added sugar and/or sodium.

In 2013, USDA updated the national assessment of urban and rural food deserts - low-income areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food - and provided information on the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics that distinguish food deserts from other areas, for decision-makers and stakeholders concerned about access to healthy foods.

Conserving Natural Resources and Combating Climate Change

USDA develops and delivers science-based knowledge that empowers farmers, foresters, ranchers, landowners, resource managers, policymakers, and Federal agencies to manage the risks, challenges, and opportunities of climate variability, and that informs decision-making and improves practices in environmental conservation.

Our scientists are developing rice and corn crops that are drought- and flood-resistant and helping to improve the productivity of soil, as well as production systems that require increasing smaller amounts of pesticides or none at all.

Vegetation indices contained in VegScape have proven useful for assessing crop condition and identifying the aerial extent of floods, drought, major weather anomalies, and vulnerabilities of early/late season crops. This tool allows users to monitor and track weather anomalies' effects on crops in near real time and compare this information to historical data on localized levels or across States.

Additionally, our researchers have 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 and adapt to a changing climate on America's crop production.

Our researchers 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, and since 2009 have continued building on the success of the tool and expanding its use. Our scientists are conducting research on uses of wood, helping companies meet green building design standards and creating jobs using forest products. We have also worked with Major League Baseball to reduce the occurrence of broken baseball bats.

USDA supports 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. Cooperative Extension-affiliated volunteer monitoring programs have engaged citizens in water monitoring to better understand the effects of climate change and/or aquatic invasive species on local waters. Collectively, these programs interacted with hundreds of local, State, and Federal partners. The programs help citizens detect the presence of invasive species and harmful algal blooms.

Science Education and Extension

USDA recognizes the importance of recruiting, cultivating, and developing the next generation of scientists, leaders, and a highly skilled workforce for food, agriculture, natural resources, forestry, environmental systems, and life sciences.

The NIFA interagency agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leverages technology and innovation and involves youth in STEM outreach and exposure. Youth participants developed science process skills related to using GIS and research design, analyzing and interpreting data, and reporting findings to the community which has enabled them to become better consumers of science and citizens capable of making wise STEM policy choices.

USDA strives to provide effective research, education, and extension activities that inform public and private decision-making in support of rural and community development. NASS holds outreach events throughout the Census cycle with underserved and minority and disadvantaged farming groups to promote participation in the Census of Agriculture. With funding and support from NIFA, many Tribal Colleges are offering Reservation citizens training ranging from basic financial literacy to business start-up and marketing information so that families not only survive, but thrive.

In addition, the ERS Atlas of Rural and Small Town America brings together over 80 demographic, economic, and agricultural statistics for every county in all 50 states and assembles statistics in four broad categories -- people, jobs, agriculture, and geography.

Research and Science Centers and Databases