The story of American agriculture is much broader than the crops grown in farm fields, said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Agricultural research is helping make safer eggs and creating products with the potential to reduce the risk of cancer. But not enough people are getting that message, he told a group at Ohio State University last week. And that has far-reaching implications.
Vilsack visited Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences on June 28, touring facilities in the Department of Food Science and Technology.
"Many people do not understand the contributions to human health that agricultural research makes," Vilsack said. "But here at Ohio State, there are many vivid examples showcasing the essential role agricultural research plays in solving some of the world's most pressing health problems, all while building and revitalizing rural America."
Vilsack visited the lab of Ahmed Yousef, a microbiologist and professor of food science and technology, where Yousef and post-doctoral researcher Jennifer Perry explained their research on using ozone gas in combination with heat to make in-shell eggs safe and free from Salmonella. The project started 14 years ago through a partnership between Ohio egg farmers and the university, and is now nearing commercialization.
"We want to get more young people excited about this," Vilsack said. "You're detectives. There's mystery and intellectual challenge, intrigue and failure, frustration and triumph all going into this work that makes life exciting. It makes you want to come into work every day. That's not being translated to future generations. We have a lack of people interested in science, math and engineering."
Vilsack also visited the lab of Steve Schwartz, a professor of food science and director of the Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship. He learned about the development of:
* A tomato-soy juice that's rich in lycopene and soy isoflavones that could reduce the occurrence of prostate cancer. The research was funded, in part, by a $1.75 million USDA grant.
* A bread that contains enough soy protein to carry a Food and Drug Administration "heart-healthy" claim and rich enough in isoflavones to be studied for anti-cancer properties.
* A "black-raspberry confection" made from freeze-dried black raspberries that could help reduce the recurrence of oral cancers.
All three products are being used in clinical trials at the university's Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Hospital and Solove Research Institute, said Dr. Steve Clinton, who also helped host Vilsack at the event.
Schwartz and Clinton, associate director of CAFFRE and a medical doctor and faculty member of the College of Medicine, praised the long-term partnership between the food scientists, agricultural researchers, the hospital and business partners to bring healthy outcomes from "Crops to the Clinic to the Consumer." Several of those business partners, Bill Hirzel of Hirzel Canning Company and Farms, and Rob Miller and Gary Katz of Abbott Labs, were on hand and shared how the partnership benefits their companies.
"You've got one heck of a story here," Vilsack said, adding that land-grant universities across the U.S. have similar success stories on other issues.
"If we could do a better job of marketing this message, I think that No. 1, the country would be a lot more hopeful, No. 2, production agriculture would have a much better reputation and people would have a better understanding and more appreciation for what we're doing, and, No. 3, it would encourage more young people to see this as just an extraordinary adventure that they can take and do amazing things,” he said.
"If you are able to figure out how to take tomato juice and help reduce prostate cancer, how many lives are you going to improve with one product? What a great way to spend a life."
Vilsack's visit came just days before the 150th anniversary of the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act (July 2, 1862), which created the nation's land-grant university system.
After the tour, Vilsack spoke about the need to get the 2012 Farm Bill passed through Congress without delay.
The Senate passed a five-year, $969 million farm bill June 21 that calls for replacing direct payments to farmers and farm subsidies with insurance, and would trim nearly $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - Education over the next 10 years. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote on the farm bill July 11.
The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.
"It's important and necessary that we have some programs in place to help those farmers who, through no fault of their own, are faced with the loss of a crop," Vilsack said. "That cannot happen unless we have a food, jobs and farm bill by Sept. 30."
In answer to a question, Vilsack also discussed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) part of the bill.
"It's designed to help people who are struggling," he said. "I think the assumption on the part of a lot of people is that people who get SNAP are on welfare. But 92 percent of people on SNAP are one of these groups: senior citizens on a very low fixed income; people with a very serious disability; working men and women and their children who are having a tough time. Which of those people do we not want to help?"
He also emphasized the ripple effect that SNAP dollars have, from grocery stores to truck drivers who transport the food all the way back to the farmer. And he said the fraud rate in the program, at 1 percent, is at its lowest point in history, as is the error rate, at 3.5 to 3.6 percent.
In contrast, the error rate in the agency's crop insurance program is at 9 percent.
"I never hear anyone say hey, we need to cut crop insurance because there's a 9 percent error rate,” Vilsack said. “Why not? It's the same dollar."
The June 28 visit was the secretary's second visit to the college in less than a year. He visited in September 2011 to learn about its work in developing bio-based products.