sealPurdue News

September 2000

Purdue dean: Research is critical for everyone

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – By the end of this decade, harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria could be eliminated from the food purchased by consumers.

That's just one example of the potential payoff from an investment in agricultural research, says Victor Lechtenberg, dean of agriculture at Purdue University and chair of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economics Advisory Board.

The United States has a rich tradition of being the world leader in agricultural research, but that research has increasingly been under attack from those who don't understand the importance or scope of modern agricultural research, Lechtenberg says.

The Hatch Act of 1887 created a national system of agricultural research institutes, or experiment stations, placing one in each state. At the time, more than half of the population lived on farms; today only one in 50 people do. Although agricultural research may seem to be an anachronism in today's urban society, issues such as the safety of genetically engineered foods, pathogens in the food supply, environmental problems created by industrial agriculture, and the disappearance of the family farm, make agricultural research as important as ever, he says.

"These problems are solvable, and we have the system in place to do it, if our agricultural research system is supported," Lechtenberg says.

For example, Lechtenberg says that in the near future, technology will detect food pathogens before the products leave the supermarket or even before they pass through the farmgate. "It's not too farfetched to think of a microbiology scanner at the grocery checkout that would scan a package of meat for contamination at the same time as the price scanner is reading the barcode," he says.

Scientists at Purdue are already developing a computer chip that has antibodies for Listeria embedded on it, which will allow food processors to quickly detect the deadly bacterium.

Being able to eliminate harmful pathogens from our food supply is just one of the problems related to agriculture and our natural resources that can be solved. Lechtenberg says that in the next few years, agricultural research will focus on these areas:

•  Nutrition and health:  Scientists have identified natural compounds in foods that combat diseases such as diabetes, and many scientists believe that with additional work, food scientists can create new foods to control these diseases. "The potential exists in a wide variety of health problems to improve human or animal health through positive changes in the composition of food materials, instead of always relying on drugs," Lechtenberg says.

•  Agricultural biotechnology:  Consumers have a difficult time distinguishing between the conflicting claims about genetic modification of crops. Because of strong demand by farmers, new genetically modified crops are going to be introduced to the market. But agricultural scientists at public institutions will need to give consumers the data and information they need so they can better understand and address the risks of these new technologies.

•  Environmentally friendly agriculture:  Research will help farmers find ways to produce our food with less harm to the natural environment. "One method that shows promise is the use of global positioning system precision farming sensors to diminish potential runoff of farm chemicals and to reduce the effects of livestock production systems," Lechtenberg says. "Developing such new ways of farming would have a large environmental payoff nationwide and will make farmers even better neighbors."

•  New uses for agricultural products:  America's industrial economy is dependent on petroleum, but over the next several decades that resource will become more and more scarce and expensive. Fortunately, plant oils can replace petroleum in products such as paints, adhesives and plastics. New biotech crops combined with new refining methods will allow the development of top-quality products made from renewable resources that are environmentally friendly.

•  Farm efficiency and profitability:  The changing structure of agriculture in this country means the roles of the family farm in agriculture and society are also changing. "We need to find ways to help family farms capture the benefits of high technology without forcing them to become large corporations themselves," Lechtenberg says. This can be done, he says, by helping adapt new marketing strategies. "Some can succeed with small acreages if they can raise and market high-value products," he says. "One farm family in the Northeast told me that they've found a way to sell their apples at several times the market price – by packaging them between pie crusts. By selling pies locally instead of selling apples as a commodity, they've been able to create a profitable business."

Lechtenberg says no one in America will go hungry if agricultural research isn't conducted: "We're rich enough that we can buy all we need. But if agricultural research were to be cut, it would mean changes in our nation's food system.

"The most important change would be that challenges we face with food, nutrition, agriculture and the environment – problems we are well on the way to solving – would go unsolved for many years to come. And a technologically advanced nation such as ours can simply do better."

Source: Victor L. Lechtenberg, (765) 494-8391

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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