Biotechnology grants put science at center of food safety policy

Food Safety

The science of agriculture grows more complex every year.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced support for projects to help bridge the gap between biotechnology innovations and the policies on how to use them. These grants are funded through NIFA’s Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants Program.
“Biotechnology offers innovative tools to address the problem of ensuring a safe, nutritious food supply,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “It is imperative that we help policymakers understand these tools and base their policy decisions on high-quality science and evidence.”

Established in 1992, the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grant (BRAG) program supports research to help evaluate hazard potential and other effects of genetically engineered (GE) organisms. The program also supports conferences that bring together scientists, regulators, and other stakeholders to discuss topics related to biotechnology and assessments of risk. Projects are supported in several program areas including management practices to minimize the environmental risk of GE organisms; methods to monitor, and understand the dispersal of GE organisms; gene transfer to domesticated and wild relatives; and environmental impacts of genetic engineering in agricultural production systems.
Among projects funded in Fiscal Year 2017, Cornell University researchers will investigate whether genetically engineered probiotics – often used as alternatives to antibiotics – may spread from an animal’s microbiome into their environment. Oregon State University researchers will conduct greenhouse and field tests of CRISPR gene-edited poplar and eucalyptus trees to evaluate the ecological concerns that may pose barriers to their commercial adoption.

In all, 13 grants totaling nearly $5.4 million are being awarded through the BRAG program. They are: 

  • Infinite Eversole Strategic Drop Services, Jonesboro, Arkansas, $25,000
  • University of California, Davis, California, $500,000
  • University of California, Davis, California, $25,000
  • USDA-ARS, Western Regional Research Center, Albany, California, $500,000
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, $500,000
  • University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, $500,000
  • Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, $469,277
  • The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska, $499,998
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, $500,000
  • Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Ithaca, New York, $380,830
  • Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, $500,000
  • Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, $499,422
  • Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, $496,361

More information on these grants can be found on the NIFA website.

Among previous BRAG projects, the University of Tennessee (link is external) researchers measured armyworm resistance to corn and cotton crops bred to include an insecticidal bacteria that occurs naturally in soil. The research has resulted in new monitoring methods to help farmers detect, monitor, and predict the movement of these pests. Another project at North Carolina State University (link is external) looked at ways to stop the northward spread of screwworm from South America. During the past century, the presence of screwworm cost the U.S. livestock industry an average of $20 million annually. As a result, the team developed and evaluated a sterile male screwworm strain to help manage the buffer zone along the Panama-Colombia border.

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