Now more than ever, as our government applies the concept of ‘return on investment’ to research projects, scientists must show the economic impact of their research. Fortunately for plant pathology and other agricultural sciences, that impact can be huge.
A new report from the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, titled “Retaking the Field: Strengthening the Science of Farm and Food Production” highlights significant and economically impactful achievements of 11 university research projects as part of a larger effort to build stronger federal support for the food and agricultural sciences.
The report vividly underscores the positive impacts of investing in scientific research for the benefit of the U.S. economy…to the tune of billions of dollars in savings for American agricultural producers. This report was presented to Congressional staffers in Washington, D.C. on March 2 by Dr. John McDowell, who researches molecular plant-microbe interactions at Virginia Tech and MPMI editor-in-chief.
SoAR’s report highlighted the impact of research funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). McDowell represented one of the 11 NIFA-funded research projects described in the report. The project, titled “Integrated management of oomycete diseases of soybean and other crops,” was funded by NIFA’s Global Food Security program. The project focused on the pathogen Phytophthora sojae, which causes a devastating root and stem rot disease that significantly reduces soybean yields in the U.S. Phytophthora sojae is the cousin of Phytophthora infestans, the infamous pathogen responsible for the Irish Potato Famine.
Funding for this project allowed McDowell and colleagues from 17 other research universities to scour the genome of P. sojae in order to identify the pathogen’s weaknesses, as well as develop new diagnostic tools and disease control strategies to combat Phytophthora root and stem rot. Among the other important impacts of this work are:
- The identification of new genes that can be used to breed disease-resistant soybeans
- New molecular tools for identifying oomycete pathogens in the field
- The development of an extension network that discussed oomycete diseases and control strategies with farmers and crop advisors
- The establishment of an undergraduate education network that promoted the importance of agricultural bioinformatics for the next generation of U.S. researchers, producers, and policy makers
Preliminary estimates by agricultural economists suggest that this $9.2 million USDA-NIFA project alone can save farmers as much as $5 billion in the coming years.
“Although the science is complex, the math is simple,” said McDowell. “When we make an investment in research and science, the American people and the economy benefit. Now more than ever, it’s important that we understand the role that scientists and researchers play in helping America thrive.”
Other research projects profiled in “Retaking the Field” include:
- “Racing Against the Clock to Beat the Rice Blast Fungus” by Dr. Barbara Valent of Kansas State University and colleagues. The group examined the blast fungus, which has long afflicted rice crops and now infects wheat fields, to determine new ways that plants can resist the pathogen and overcome its ability to evolve.
- “Fast-tracking an Improved Wheat Harvest,” in which Dr. Jorge Dubcovsky and colleagues mapped out more than 90,000 genetic markers in wheat plants. They specifically identified markers linked to further increases in productivity and resistance to dangerous pathogens.
- “Harnessing a Flood of Data to Improve Rice Production” by Dr. Susan McCouch of Cornell University and colleagues. In this project, researchers cross-referenced genetic details with climate and harvest data over the past 40 years for every rice-growing region in the U.S. to help plant breeders develop new weather-specific varieties.
Learn more about all 11 projects in the full report.