The Agricultural Research Service Celebrates 50 Years


(This column was first published in the November 24, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Shortly after I began writing these columns thirteen years ago a friend in the federal Department of Agriculture added my name to the mailing list for the monthly journal of the Agricultural Research Service, simply and appropriately titled Agricultural Research. That journal has kept me abreast of the many ways government scientists are contributing to our welfare and in the process it has provided me ideas for many columns.


This year the ARS is celebrating its 50th anniversary and I salute the agency for its wonderful accomplishments. Consider a few of its contributions:


My personal favorite is the biocontrol technique invented by ARS entomologist Edward F. Knipling. A vicious livestock pest, the screwworm, infested, debilitated and even killed cattle throughout the South. Knipling overwhelmed the flies' breeding cycle by sterilizing and releasing large numbers of the adult insects. As a result today screwworms have been eradicated not only from the United States but from Mexico as well. His technique has also been adapted to control Mediterranean fruit flies and tsetse flies.


A remarkable one-quarter of all adults cannot digest dairy products. ARS scientists developed an enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar lactose responsible for the digestion problem. The result: 40 million gallons of lactose-free milk are now produced each year, increasing milk consumption nationally by over two percent.


I must admit that I have mixed feelings about one of their recent findings. I used to enjoy eating rare hamburgers. I can do so no longer because today restaurants must cook ground beef to 160 Fahrenheit to eliminate pathogenic bacteria such as the infamous E. coli. However, a well-done hamburger is a small price to pay to reduce the possibility of a severely enervating and possibly lethal infection.


Of course there are costs associated with this agency, but consider an example of how those costs pay off. In 1967 the herpes virus that causes a cancer called Marek's disease in poultry was identified. ARS invested $32 million over ten years to develop a vaccine to control the disease, but $30 million was recouped by poultry producers in just the first year of vaccine use. So important was this work that it was cited by the National Cancer Institute as "one of the single most important developments in cancer research."


World-traveling ARS scientists have brought to this country a wide range of plants that have become major crops here. For example, just one of the 42 soybean varieties found by Frank Meyer in China in 1908 has led to soybean oil production worth billions of dollars today.


Pick a food crop at random and you will find ARS contributions to its care, protection from disease and insects, and production. Among those best effected: rice, carrots, blueberries, tomatoes, grapefruit. And those dwarf apple trees from which fruit is so easy to pick: those are theirs as well.


The ARS represents our second-best line of defense against Malthusian problems. The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an early 19th century economist who pointed out that population increased exponentially while food production increased linearly. He projected widespread starvation because, he warned, there would soon not be enough food to go around. The best defense is zero population growth but the substantial increases in agricultural production to which ARS is contributing are at least postponing a Malthusian future.


Their current journal issue points out the gains over their fifty years: bushels of wheat per acre doubled, milk per cow tripled, and the fraction of our income spent for food halved.


What other government agency can offer such positive statistics?-- Gerry Rising