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USDA issues 5-year science blueprint

Main themes for agriculture include sustainable intensification, climate adaptation and discussion on latest developments in plant and animal breeding.

Although this Administration has been criticized for not following science, particularly as it relates to climate change, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a USDA Science Blueprint to serve as the vision for and continued commitment to scientific research, including on agriculture climate adaptation and gene modification.

The USDA Science Blueprint provides a foundation for focused leadership and direction in advancing USDA’s scientific mission through 2025, the agency said in a release. It lays out five overarching themes for research, education and economics, each with established objectives, strategies and evidence-building measures. The five program themes include: sustainable agriculture intensification, agriculture climate adaptation, food and nutrition translation, value-added innovations and agricultural science policy leadership.

In these times of unprecedented scientific and information progress, there is an increasing distrust of science and politicization of scientific discoveries, the blueprint noted. This may be because of a diminished understanding of science by the general public, failure of scientists to communicate effectively and increasing confirmation bias of information systems. The blueprint added that under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, “USDA will champion science through expanding science literacy through outreach and education, backing USDA scientists in public forums in order to build consensus and trust in science and actively seeking leadership roles in decision-making bodies to ensure that agricultural perspectives are included in other federal agencies.”

In regard to climate research and resiliency, one of the objectives outlined includes to “understand and convey knowledge about the influences of climate change and weather variability on agricultural, forest and range lands, stewardship systems and the communities built around them, as well as the products and societal benefits from our natural resources."

One of the strategies to accomplish this is to evaluate the environmental effects (benefits versus limitations) of conservation practices selected for adaptation to climate change and weather variability or greenhouse gas mitigation. USDA said it plans to use this evaluation for a spatially explicit analysis of the economic costs and benefits from conservation practice implementation.

Another strategy is to develop deeper knowledge of the human dimensions of climate change and weather variability, including perceptions and effective framing of risk, adaptation and mitigation incentives and the impact of climate change and weather variability on the nutritional characteristics of food products.

The latest developments in plant and animal breeding methods offer important tools for addressing disease resistance, drought tolerance and nutrient content, among other challenges with the use of gene editing. However, USDA noted that these technological advances may raise important questions about consumer acceptance, risk and safety assessments. “As a result, our science agencies fund and engage in research into the social and economic implications of emerging technologies to understand producer, stakeholder and public engagement with gene editing techniques for agricultural use. This research allows for data-driven decision-making for policy-makers, domestically and internationally,” the blueprint stated.

In regard to animal production, health and genetics, USDA’s objective is to capitalize on emerging opportunities such as automation, deep learning, precision management, genetic engineering and biotechnological innovation in animal production, welfare and health, managing risk as appropriate, to continue to advance animal research programs and sustain effective technology transfer.

USDA set out strategies to achieve this including expanding partnerships to integrate U.S. research discoveries (government, other academic, non-government organization and commercial research capabilities) into a fluid, highly effective research network, maximizing use of core competencies and public and private resources and tapping into genetic diversity and use of genomic technology to accelerate breeding progress, to decrease susceptibility to climate variability, pests and diseases, to improve animal welfare and to increase productivity potential.

USDA also stated that U.S. agriculture requires a vibrant, innovative community of leaders who set forth an aggressive agricultural science agenda to support science-based policy decision-making.

“USDA’s agricultural research is vital to helping our farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters increase efficiency and productivity, and our science agencies play an integral role in setting forth new visions for innovation through their work,” Perdue said. “As the department strives to anticipate and meet the future needs of our customers, the USDA Science Blueprint will serve as a roadmap to guide our scientific collaboration over the next five years across the department and with our partnering research organizations.”

“USDA has a long history of putting its scientific discoveries and knowledge into practice,” said Dr. Scott Hutchins, who leads USDA’s Research, Education & Economics mission area. “By prioritizing our research initiatives around these themes, it will enable us to best conduct critical, long-term, broad-scale science and spur innovation throughout our nation’s agricultural enterprise, natural resource base and food systems. We are committed to putting science to work for the American public. We will always strive for scientific excellence and integrity in support of America’s agriculture.”

Hutchins first announced the publication during remarks to the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research conference on Feb. 5.

TAGS: Policy
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