Top USDA scientist says agricultural research important to U.S. growth

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The chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture contends that agricultural research being conducted in Kansas will have a “payoff for everybody.”

Speaking to a small gathering at Fort Riley’s Community Victory Garden, a project supported by K-State Research and Extension’s office on the military post, Catherine Woteki also said that’s why it’s important that the U.S. government continue to find ways to fund research that helps the country’s food and fiber system.

“My response to this trying U.S. budget situation is to keep pointing out to all the audiences I speak to that investing in agricultural research is an investment for everybody,” Woteki said. “I talk first about the payoff for farmers, in new technology that they can use to increase their productivity and reduce their costs.

“But that also pays off for the general public in a wider variety of foods available, and in reasonable food prices.”

Woteki is the undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics and chief scientist for the USDA. Her job includes overseeing four agencies: the Agricultural Research Service, National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Economic Research Service, and the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

She noted that research that helps U.S. farmers positively affects the country’s ability to export goods, and balance trade with other countries.

“In order to maintain that important part of our exports, which is important to our economy, our investment in agricultural research is all the more important,” she said.

USDA economists have found that every dollar invested in agricultural research has a $20 return to the American economy, she added.

From 1997-2001, Woteki was the first undersecretary for food safety at USDA. She also has led scientific policy and research on health, nutrition and food safety for Mars, Inc., and from 2002-2005, was Dean of Agriculture and professor of human nutrition at Iowa State University.

During a career of 30-plus years, Woteki also has worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the National Academy of Sciences; and the White House.

As chief scientist for USDA, “my job is to make sure that decisions that the department makes are informed by science,” she said. “These might be policy decisions; they might be program decisions. What I do is assemble the scientific evidence and bring it into the decision-making process and make sure that there’s transparency in sharing that information to decision-makers.”

Woteki’s visit included tours of the proposed site for the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF), and the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) at Kansas State University.

“(NBAF) is very important for American agriculture,” Woteki said. “It will be the place where we’ll be able to develop anti-viral agents and also be able to train veterinarians to recognize (animal) diseases and to respond quickly with knowledge about how to treat those diseases.”

NBAF is not yet fully into the construction stage, but Woteki thinks the facility could be fully operational in 7-9 years, depending on appropriations from Congress.

Also on Thursday, Woteki met with business leaders in Manhattan to hear their ideas on how to boost local economies. “We are interested in hearing their ideas on how to stimulate innovation as a way to create new jobs,” she said.


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