Everyone wants to be seen as “innovative” these day, even the plants-and-animals folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“When people think of the USDA, they don’t think pressed cotton or OJ concentrate,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Taxpayers need to know that they are being positively impacted by government.” Vilsack is committed to fixing the innovation-perception gap facing the federal agency, even if he’s invoking technology from the 1940s to do so. Now the secretary will have an arsenal of modern examples to make his case.
Wednesday will bring the release a 209-page report detailing a long list of discoveries made with help from the Department of Agriculture, many of them now being adapted for commercial use. USDA-funded scientists have, for example, sequenced the genomes of domesticated and wild tomatoes and developed insecticides to protect troops in Iraq from dangerous sand flies.
The agency has also spurred the creation of flour from chardonnay grape seeds, a waste product of the winemaking process. It might not sound world-changing, but there’s reason to believe the grape seed flour might lower cholesterol and weight gain (good) while simultaneously reducing the cost of wine (great).
In Florida, meanwhile, USDA scientists have created a packaging insert that emits an antimicrobial vapor to effectively extend the shelf-life of fresh produce such as strawberries. “The packets could save the international fresh produce industry more than $1 billion annually,” notes the report.
The USDA has long been in the research game. The agency claims credit for the birth of everyday products ranging from the somewhat minor (wrinkle-resistant fabric and the recyclable glue used on stamps) to the world-altering (mass production of penicillin). “Almost all the blueberries and cranberries in commercial production,” the report observers, can be traced back to an in-house research organization. Of course, these innovations are not without side effects: Alaskan wild blueberries, for example, were recently found to have three to five times more antioxidants than those in the lower 48 states.
The USDA staffs roughly 100 labs across the U.S., where scientists work on about 800 projects each year, according to Vilsack. It also partners with and provides grants for scientists outside the agency. The 2015 Farm Bill, passed in February, includes a provision to establish a third privately run research branch: the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (PDF), headed by scientists nominated by the National Academy of Science and private agriculture concerns. The government will provide $200 million in research funding, which must be matched by funds from outside investors before any grants are awarded.
“This foundation is purely private sector,” says Vilsack. The government may be behind a track record of agricultural innovations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hand over the reins. “[They'll have] greater freedom to direct resources.”