NCAUR: Agricultural Research to Meet the Needs of Our Time

by Katherine O’Hara
USDA ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research

This year marks 70 years since the USDA Northern Regional Research Lab, commonly known as the “Ag Lab,” was established at the corner of University and Nebraska in Peoria. Opened in an era of uncertainty and change, this lab was established as a powerhouse of intellectual capital and scientific capacity harnessing the creative force of research to address the needs of the United States, its agriculture and its industry.

Early questions centered on how to use surplus crops, how to mass-produce penicillin, and how to develop soybeans into a usable crop. Over time, the needs of society, agriculture and industry have shifted—and the importance of using agricultural research to address these needs has taken on global significance.

Under the direction of the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and now officially known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR), this Center remains a leader of innovative research, making the food supply safe, secure and sustainable, and creating renewable products and green technologies that, through commercialization, drive economic growth and development.

The mission of the USDA is to “provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science and efficient management.” This mission leads to several primary goals for the USDA:

  • Goal 1: Rural communities create wealth so they are self-sustaining, repopulating and thriving economically.
  • Goal 2: National forest and private working lands are conserved, restored and made more resilient to climate change and are managed to enhance water resources.
  • Goal 3: America leads the world in sustainable crop production and biotech crop exports.
  • Goal 4: America’s children and the world’s children have access to safe, nutritious and balanced meals.

These goals have been adapted into key research priorities by the USDA Office of Research, Education and Economics, directing the work of ARS to support agriculture productivity through five major areas, as listed below. As the “in-house research arm” of the USDA, the ARS oversees more than 100 locations and 2,200 scientists, divided into eight geographic regions.

The 340 scientists of the ARS Midwest Area, which includes Peoria, conduct research at 12 locations throughout eight Midwestern states. At NCAUR, nearly 100 scientists and their staff work on 36 major research projects, each of which addresses one or more of the key research priorities supporting the USDA mission.

Featured in this issue are research updates relevant to each of the key priorities, from NCAUR and from the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames, Iowa.

Food Safety: Contributing to a safe food supply by developing sophisticated DNA testing for identification of food-borne bacteria and technology for quick response to food-borne disease outbreaks, from the Bacterial Food Pathogens and Mycology research unit at NCAUR.

Health/Children’s Nutrition: Creating new food ingredients that enhance the nutritional value of food products and addressing the issue of childhood obesity by providing reduced-fat ingredients
for school lunch programs, from the Functional Foods research
unit at NCAUR.

Global Food Security: Fighting the crop diseases that reduce
yields and profits and are hazardous to human and animal health
by deploying yeasts and bacteria to deliver a “one-two” punch to the toxin-producing fungi that are their natural enemies, from the
Crop Bioprotection research unit at NCAUR.

Bioenergy: Engineering biocatalysts to make it more viable to convert crop residues and new feedstocks into ethanol and to develop next-generation biofuels such as butanol and hydrogen, from the Bioenergy research unit at NCAUR.

Climate Change: Understanding and adapting to how climate change affects our lives, from the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa, which is also located in the ARS Midwest Area.

How can we ensure a safe food supply? Increase the nutritional value of our food and fight childhood obesity? How can we produce enough crops for both food and fuel needs? Adapt to a changing climate? Relevant and critical in 2010, these questions underscore both the continued need to harness the creative force of research in and for the next generation, and the considerable value of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. iBi

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