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Report cites decline in food, agriculture research

By Angelo Bouselli
American Society for Microbiology

Disease, spoilage and agroterrorism pose ongoing threats to the U.S. food supply. But research in food and agricultural microbiology is declining, says a report by the American Academy for Microbiology.

"The constant spread and evolution of agricultural pathogens provides a continually renewed source of challenges to productivity and food safety," said University of Georgia microbiologist Michael Doyle, a co-author of the report.

"However, research support over the last few decades has been lean and is, in fact, decreasing," Doyle said. "Trouble recruiting and maintaining graduate students is also harming programs and will ultimately affect the field."

Disease-causing microbes continually assault the animals and crops that humans raise for food, he said. Two of the more famous examples:

  • An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to the slaughter of more than 6 million animals in England in 2001.

  • Potato late blight caused the great potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century. A new variant of the blight emerged in the United States in the 1980s, causing serious losses and even bankruptcy for some potato growers.
Microorganisms continue to cause harm to the food supply beyond the farm, Doyle said, causing spoilage and, in some cases poisoning and disease. And now, the global movement of farm products, industrial agricultural processes and the potential for bioterrorism add new vulnerabilities.

Microorganisms can benefit the food supply, too, he said.

"Beneficial microbes cultivated in food can provide added value far beyond delay or prevention of spoilage," he said. "Deepening understanding of the nature of such probiotic effects and elucidating ways that these can be strengthened will allow scientists to capitalize further on the beneficial effects of these microbes."

Doyle said reversing the decline in funding and recognizing the value of agricultural research "requires fundamental changes, in addition to an infusion of financial support."

The report, "Research Opportunities in Food and Agriculture Microbiology," came out of an AAM colloquium in which 19 scientists with far-ranging expertise met to examine the future of food and agriculture microbiology. It recommends research priorities and identifies barriers to strong food and agriculture research.

The AAM is the honorific leadership group of the American Society for Microbiology. A full copy of the report is on the ASM Web site at 0026 www.asm.org/Academy/index.asp?bid=2093 268E .

(Angelo Bouselli is a communications specialist with the American Society for Microbiology.)

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