The National Institute of Food and Agriculture celebrates the seventh anniversary of its establishment on Oct. 1. Replacing the former Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, NIFA was established by the Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill) to find innovative solutions to issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and communities. In the past seven years, NIFA-funded research has led to breakthrough discoveries in the areas of sustainable Ag production systems, education, environmental systems, family and consumer sciences, bioenergy, human nutrition, food safety, climate variability, youth development, and more.
Below is just a snapshot of the tremendous research, education, and extension projects undertaken by NIFA’s land-grant university, and small business partners:
Peanuts are the 12th most valuable cash crop in the United States. Allergies to peanuts are among the most severe of all food allergies, affecting some 2.8 million people in the United States, including 400,000 school-aged children. Now, however, there is good news from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), where scientists have discovered a way to remove up to 98 percent of the allergens. Researchers found that by soaking roasted, shelled, and skinned peanuts in a solution containing food-grade enzymes, they could drastically reduce two key allergens. The process does not affect flavor, and treated peanuts can be eaten whole, in pieces, or as flour in various products. The process has been validated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill through human clinical trials using skin prick tests. NC A&T officials expect reduced-allergen peanut products to hit store shelves soon.
A Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from NIFA is supporting a small company in Wise, Virginia, Micronic Technologies, to pursue commercialization of its new technology to treat unsafe well water to the point where the water meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clean drinking water safety standards. The technology, MicroDesal, quickly evaporates the water to separate impurities. MicroDesal then recaptures the liquid for safe use. Awarded an SBIR Phase I grant, the company successfully demonstrated the technology's feasibility with outstanding results, removing more than 95 percent of nitrate contaminants consistently from eight community wells over three seasons. Nitrites were undetectable. The woman-owned business employs military veterans and has student interns to provide them real-world experience.
American corn production covers about 95 million acres on 400,000 farms and brought in about $65 billion in revenue in 2013. NIFA has provided $20 million in funding to sustain one of the nation’s most important farm crops through weather extremes. Iowa State University is leading a multidisciplinary team of researchers from 10 land-grant universities and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service on the Sustainable Corn Project to mitigate and adapt the Midwest “Corn Belt” to climate change. Since the project began in 2011, researchers have created a central database to evaluate how drainage, cover crops, tillage, fertilizers, and crop rotations affect water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles under variable weather conditions. In addition, the team is training 159 researchers—undergraduate through post-doctoral—to become the next generation of scientists who can help increase future food production and ensure the integrity and resilience of natural resources.
Researchers from the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are testing a cutting-edge approach for eradicating the most ancient disease known to mankind, influenza. The research team will use advanced genome editing technologies and delete receptors in the pigs’ genetic codes to block the virus’s entry and insert what are called “decoy” genes to prevent the disease from replicating. This technology has the potential to develop resistance to the flu resistance in pigs and prevent the flu from spreading to other pigs and to humans, who can contract the virus from swine.
Purdue University leads a multi-institutional effort aimed at providing farmers with online tools that can make their crop-related decisions easier. Today, the resulting “Useful to Usable” (U2U) project is helping Corn Belt farmers improve their resilience and profitability amid the irregular weather conditions of a changing climate. The U2U project takes existing weather data 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 tool provides farmers with decision-making tools that help them plan for the current season, as well as future ones.
NIFA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) addresses some of our most pervasive societal challenges—hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and obesity—by providing practical, hands-on nutrition education to the poorest of the poor. Each year, EFNEP peer educators teach more than a half million low-income families and youth how to change their behavior toward food. More than 80 percent of EFNEP families report living at or below the poverty threshold, and nearly 70 percent indicate being of minority status. A 2012 national review of EFNEP data showed that 95 percent of EFNEP graduates improved the quality of their diets, 88 percent improved their nutrition practices, 86 percent stretched their food dollars farther, 66 percent handled their food more safely, and 28 percent increased their physical activity by at least 30 minutes each day.
NIFA’s AFRI-funded Triticeae CAP and the previously funded Wheat-CAP and Barley-CAP projects have led to many successes. 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. Jorge Dubcovsky, a professor of plant sciences at the University of California–Davis, works with wheat to improve disease resistance, nutritional value, yield, and adaptability to a changing environment. Over the years, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has provided more than $15 million to fund more than 20 of Dubcovsky’s research projects. One of his recent NIFA grants is a $5 million Triticeae CAP (TCAP) project to improve barley and wheat germplasm. Triticeae is from the family of grasses that includes wheat, barley, and rye. Wheat products alone account for about 20 percent of calories consumed by humans. Dubcovsky’s TCAP team used markers to identify the gene variants that control the most desirable of the plant’s traits. They then created a “Triticeae Toolbox” to provide this information to plant breeders so they can develop improved wheat and barley lines. Further, the team is developing a national education network to train doctoral candidates in plant breeding.