Peoria’s Ag Lab helps bridge the gap between agricultural producers and commercial manufacturers.
In 2015, the USDA Ag Lab, officially known as the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR), will celebrate 75 years of research in Peoria. This lab opened under the name of the USDA Northern Regional Research Lab (NRRL). The challenge: find new ways to use corn and wheat so demand for those commodities would increase.
The current world bears little resemblance to those opening days in 1940, and NCAUR has been on the frontlines of transformation. Technologies from this lab played a key role in the rise of a little-grown forage crop called soybeans into its place as a pillar of U.S. agricultural commodity production, fulfilling the vision that increased utilization increases demand and profitability. Along the way, NCAUR also developed the method to mass-produce penicillin, opening the era of antibiotics, and many other technologies that have made their way into our everyday lives. This lab was born and raised on utilizing agricultural materials to solve problems and improve quality of life. After 75 years, the drivers of utilization research may have changed, but the need is greater than ever because we need agricultural crops for more than food.
Agricultural research challenges have expanded to include:
- Producing enough food to feed an increasing global population—the reality of future population increases puts pressure on food supplies.
- Adapting to climate change—the reality of climate change adds pressure to focus on renewable resources as a way of sustainably making products.
- Supporting a vibrant rural economy—this is a key component of the USDA mission and a core strength of ARS and NCAUR.
As increased production of existing commodities attempts to keep pace with these multiple pressures, utilization research is a significant aspect of addressing these challenges. It becomes critical to use not only the edible portions, but all available materials from all available resources. This includes:
- Utilizing a portion of plant materials/residues that are left in the field after harvest
- Utilizing the processing byproducts and waste
- Developing new, non-food crops for expanded conversion to fuels and chemicals that can replace petrochemicals. Utilization research is a critical component of crop development efforts; it provides fundamental information that is essential to developing new biomass crops that can be more readily converted into bioproducts.
Utilization research is also a critical component in developing the biorefinery, a production model whereby agricultural materials can be converted into fuels and chemicals. Much like the petro-refining model depends on other products and chemicals to make the production of fuel economically viable, the bio-refining model requires other bioproducts and chemicals to make the production of biofuels economically viable. In turn, a viable bio-refining industry supports the vitality of rural communities by stabilizing farm prices, creating jobs and economic development opportunities. In this way, agricultural utilization helps move the United States into domestic-based sustainable living through effective use of all its renewable resources.
NCAUR is firmly established in an enduring mission and legacy of finding ways to utilize renewable resources, conducting a spectrum of problem-solving research from fundamental to applied/commercial scale-up, and partnering with entrepreneurs, private industry, academia and other government agencies to move technologies from concept to reality. The lab fills a unique research niche, allowing it to leverage the broader capabilities of ARS and bridge the gap between agricultural producers and commercial manufacturers.
NCAUR’s middle name is “Utilization,” and the significance of this predates the lab itself. George Washington Carver, one of America’s great scientists and a pioneer of ag utilization research, said, “I believe that the great Creator has put ores and oil on this Earth to give us a breathing spell …. As we exhaust them, we must be prepared to fall back on our farms, which are God’s true storehouse. We can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from things that grow.” iBi
Mike Cotta is a research microbiologist at NCAUR, and Kate O’Hara is NCAUR liaison for external relations.