3 Ways Science Is Vital to the United States Department of Agriculture

What does the Department of Agriculture do when it comes to science? Ask Science explores the answer.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #239

In the US, the Department of Agriculture (the USDA) oversees and conducts an incredible amount of scientific research related to protecting and improving our agriculture, nutrition, food distribution, and our use of natural resources. The head of the USDA research division, known as the USDA Chief Scientist, is required to steer these many and varied scientific projects in the most effective direction. What scientific questions should we be asking? Which research projects are being run efficiently? What research-based evidence do we already have as opposed to what questions need further study?

The 2008 Farm Bill which first established the Office of the Chief Scientist states that the president is expected to select a “distinguished scientist” to fill the role. However, researchers and farmers have voiced concern over the current administration’s plan to instead appoint to the position someone with no scientific background, Sam Clovis, a former business professor and radio talk show host. To understand the research programs that would be operating under the nonscientist’s supervision and guidance, let’s look at why science is important to the USDA:

The USDA improves agricultural productivity and sustainability while keeping our food supply safe.

The USDA conducts and supports research aimed at improving sustainability practices in US agriculture while also increasing productivity and mitigating animal and plant diseases. Their Research, Education, and Economics Action Plan highlighted seven priorities: global food supply and security, climate and energy needs, sustainable use of natural resources, nutrition and childhood obesity, food safety, education & science literacy, and rural-urban interdependence along with rural prosperity.

For example, USDA scientists and partners have worked toward sequencing the genomes of apples, beans, tomatoes and wheat which helps us better understand the best growing conditions for those crops and how resilient they will be, particularly in the face of a changing climate. Farmers often rely on the wide reach of statistics drawn from USDA data, like their animated crop progress and topsoil moisture maps, to make planting decisions about their own crops.

The USDA has also backed research into sequencing the genome for turkeys and pigs which helps us to understand their immune systems and thus how to prevent the spread of potentially threatening diseases like avian and swine flus. The turkeys and pigs also lead healthier lives as a bonus.

USDA-backed research improves our nutrition.

The research conducted and supported by the USDA and aimed at improving the nutritional value of the food we eat tackles the problem from many different directions. To start, USDA researchers investigate the daily nutritional needs for people of different ages, sizes, genders. That food pyramid we were introduced to as children? The accessible cartoon is backed by evidence-based science like that conducted at the USDA for understanding what our bodies need. For example, take a look at the USDA’s interactive tool that provides your recommended dietary intake for macronutrients (like carbs, protein and fat), vitamins, and minerals. They also provide an easily searchable nutrient database for a large variety of foods.

The USDA pushes for better nutrition through educational campaigns like the Team Nutrition program which provides free information on proper nutrition for children to caregivers, school food service managers, and even the children themselves. The materials include posters, games, online interactive activities, and lesson plans.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.