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Bringing Biotechnology to the Developing World

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.


Two weeks ago, I led the U.S. delegation to Mexico for the FAO International Biotechnology Conference, where officials from across the world gathered to address the potential of agricultural biotechnologies for improving the livelihoods of small farmers in developing countries.  These “smallholders” constitute 75 percent of the world’s poor, and face a disproportionate share of the enormous pressures facing agricultural production systems.

The FAO warns that the combined effects of population growth, strong income growth, and urbanization will require a doubling of food production by 2050. That doubling of production will need to occur despite climate disruptions, critical water shortages in some parts of the globe, increased salinity of soil, the ever present pressure of pests and pathogens, and the necessity to reduce the energy and environmental footprints of agriculture practices.  Smallholders will need help to meet these challenges.

Conference delegates from developing countries acknowledged that biotechnology is a crucial tool and opportunity for alleviating hunger and poverty, while also spurring economic development and mitigating climate change.  However, the various applications of agricultural biotechnologies are not widely accessible for use in many developing countries, and have not yet substantially benefited small farmers and producers.  Three key elements are necessary to make agricultural biotechnology accessible to the developing world: increased investments, international cooperation, and effective and enabling national policies and regulatory frameworks.

The conference identified ways the United States and other nations can encourage developed and developing countries to support appropriate use of agricultural biotechnologies for improving food security and enhancing sustainable agriculture, especially in the context of growing climatic changes and a growing human population.  This includes:

  • Encourage increased commitment by governments to strengthen human and institutional capacities in biotechnologies in national and regional institutions.
  • Improve knowledge sharing and access to and application of biotechnologies.
  • Facilitate the exchange of information among and between scientists and policymakers worldwide.
  • Help scientists gain knowledge and technical expertise through developing new partnerships and exchange opportunities.
  • Develop partnerships and alliances with farmers and farmer organizations, the private sector, international and regional research institutions, foundations and other relevant organizations, to facilitate and enhance the coordination of research activities and strengthen mechanisms for dissemination of best practices and technologies.

President Obama has made global food security, nutrition enhancement, and poverty reduction important  priorities for this Administration.  Building capacity for the use of modern biotechnologies in developing countries, such as marker assisted selection, tissue culture propagation, and genetic engineering, would help meet these goals and solve a growing worldwide problem.

I believe in USDA’s commitment to solving these global problems while also working toward our goals of sustainable agriculture.  Both high crop yields and safe and sustainable practices are critically important and attainable.  As USDA’s Chief Scientist and director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, I am excited to see agricultural science and technology work in a way that will meet today’s global challenges, but do so in a way that works toward economic, environmental and social sustainability.

I have every confidence that the women and men in USDA and our partner institutions, who work daily to unlock the secrets of human, plant and animal health, can be equally responsive to the challenge of building a sustainable future for agriculture and forestry that includes access to biotechnology for smallholders and others.

Roger Beachy

Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture

USDA Rural Development Recovery Act Project to Fund a West Virginia Bookmobile

Now, for an update on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding Raleigh County (West Virginia) Public Library in Beckley was awarded through the Rural Development Community Facilities program to obtain a new bookmobile.  I had yet another opportunity to interview Gary Knapp, Bookmobile Driver and Librarian at the Raleigh County Public Library, in regards to this project.

I asked Mr. Knapp if they will continue to use the two current and much older bookmobiles once the new one arrives and is operational.  Per Mr. Knapp, it is intended that they will not.  They are hoping to sell one and keep one in operation.  In addition, they are then hoping to secure funding to buy one more new bookmobile this upcoming year and sell the other one also, leaving them with two new bookmobiles.

Next, I spoke with Mr. Knapp about the bookmobiles’ schedules.  The bookmobiles go to every elementary school in Raleigh County every three weeks; they also go to day care schools, private schools, senior citizens’ homes, the Moose Lodge 1606, apartment housing, and private neighborhood stops.

“In the summer, our job is still not over.  We go to eight to ten summer school programs along with apartment, neighborhood and summer camp stops,” Knapp explained.  “So, as you can see, the bookmobiles are going non-stop year round.”

You might ask, How does the library get the word out to the public of this bookmobile service being available?  As Mr. Knapp stressed, the first traveling bookmobile in this area started in 1936.  “Yes…1936,” he emphasized.  “So, all of our community is endeared to its services.”  Word-of-mouth and the “Friends of the Library” newsletter also serve as advertising for the bookmobiles’ services and schedules.

When I asked Mr. Knapp about the benefits of this bookmobile when it comes to children reading more, he stated: “The bookmobile will improve the kids’ reading because they will have access to 3500 books on a variety of materials and a wide range of subjects.”

When I last reported on this project, the bookmobile was expected to arrive in April, 2010.  As it looks right now, that bookmobile may not arrive until mid- to late May, 2010.  But, it is definitely on its way!

Again, we’ll be following up with Mr. Knapp periodically in order to keep you updated on the progress of this important funding venture for rural West Virginia.

Reporting for and on behalf of West Virginia USDA Rural Development, this is Mikhaila Missimer signing off for now.

Written by Student Reporter Mikhaila Missimer

High Hopes for High Tunnels

Yesterday, USDA and Virginia State University co-hosted the 3rd Annual USDA Outreach Conference in Petersburg, VA. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan addressed Virginia’s farmers, rural businesses and rural community leaders at the event.  The grass-roots conference focused on providing information about USDA programs and services with a goal of strengthening the partnership between small farms and USDA.  Deputy Secretary Merrigan highlighted USDA resources ranging from the Farmers Market Promotion Program to Specialty Crop Block Grants and a multitude of assistance available through the Rural Development Agency.

The Deputy Secretary was introduced by Virginia State University President Eddie Moore, Jr.  who is leading a University at the cutting-edge of agricultural research.  VSU is exploring  specialty crop production potential in Virginia through the use of high tunnels to extend the growing season for Virginia farmers.

During a tour of Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Randolph Farm and green houses, Extension Specialist Reza Rafie, Ph.D. and Research Specialist Christopher Mullins, highlighted green papayas, white guava, ginger, lemon grass, bitter melon, and raspberries among other specialty crops. The VSU team has been able to increase raspberry production using the high tunnels with a steady crop being produced from May to December. Dr. Rafie specializes in disseminating research-based, practical management information to assist small-scale horticulture. Mr. Mullins provides information and technical assistance to vegetable growers to increase their profits by raising commercial vegetables through various methods such as greenhouses and high tunnels to get a head start on production

USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service is promoting the use of high tunnels through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) cost-sharing program.

Berlin, MD: Progress on the Wastewater Treatment Plant

by Jamie Welch, Grade 8, Worcester Preparatory School

The town of Berlin recently received $12 million dollars in grants and low-interest loans from the USDA Recovery Act.  The purpose of these grants was to renovate and update the Berlin Wastewater Treatment plant.  These upgrades are necessary because of the growing demand for wastewater treatment in the town of Berlin, and the new tough environmental requirements handed down by the State of Maryland and the EPA.  When the updates are complete, the plant will be able to process effluent down to near drinking water quality.

I recently visited the wastewater treatment plant and took a look at how the money from the USDA is being used.  Bearing Construction is the company in charge of overseeing the upgrades, some of which include reworking old equipment. Another part of the plan is the installation of a state-of-the-art piece of technology called an SBR, or Sequencing Batch Reactor.  This device works with bacteria in three different chambers to get rid of most phosphorous and nitrogen, down to almost drinking water quality.  “It’s a better quality than [the water] that most people get out of their wells,” said Jane Kreiter, Director of Water and Wastewater in Berlin.  The treated effluent is then pumped by pipeline to a spray irrigation site on Purnell Crossing Road in Libertytown, Maryland where it is used to water trees and crops.

The town has plans in the works for a second spray irrigation site in Newark which, when competed, would eliminate the need for dumping treated effluent into the coastal bays.  Many people are concerned about having the spray site in their backyards.  Kreiter is quick to point out that in Florida, people are already using treated wastewater to clean their cars and water their plants.  She says that the public is just not well informed on this, because we’ve never really had to conserve water like in Florida.  Kreiter adds that the sprayed effluent will have no negative effects on the groundwater table and aquifers.  The final decision about the new spray site will be made at a meeting of the Worcester County Commissioners some time in the near future.  If approved, the spray irrigation project is projected to cost an additional $6 million.

Kreiter says that they hope to have the upgrade and expansion project in Berlin completed by December, but adds that the recent bad weather has pushed them far behind where they should be.  When completed, this plant will be the largest wastewater treatment plant in Maryland that spray irrigates.

Touring the Berlin, MD Wastewater Treatment Plant construction site are (l-r) Dr. Merle Marsh, Director of Special Projects, Worcester Preparatory School; Jane Kreiter, Director of Wastewater; student reporter Jamie Welch, Worcester Preparatory School; and James C. Latchum, Superintendent of Wastewater, Berlin, MD.

Touring the Berlin, MD Wastewater Treatment Plant construction site are (l-r) Dr. Merle Marsh, Director of Special Projects, Worcester Preparatory School; Jane Kreiter, Director of Wastewater; student reporter Jamie Welch, Worcester Preparatory School; and James C. Latchum, Superintendent of Wastewater, Berlin, MD.

Berlin, MD Superintendent of Wastewater James C. Latchum (l) with Worcester Prep reporter Jamie Welch.

Berlin, MD Superintendent of Wastewater James C. Latchum (l) with Worcester Prep reporter Jamie Welch.

USDA Rural Development Hosts a Self Help Housing Listening Forum In North Carolina

Barbara Beard-Hinton, Assistant to the State Director for Rural Development in North Carolina, Mel Ellis, Director, Single Family Housing and Rich Davis, Acting Deputy Administrator, Single Family Housing sponsored a Self Help Housing Listening Forum at the McKimmon Conference Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh on March 12.
There were 42 persons in attendance.  The purpose of the forum was to create new ideas and promote the USDA Self Help Housing Program.  The program, which is very popular, allows families to work together under the direction of a contractor to build their own homes.  The process often takes a year and, upon completion, the work participants do on their houses becomes their “sweat equity.”
The listening forum was moderated by Scott Farmer, Director of Rental Investment,  NC Housing Finance Agency.  North Carolina currently has five active grantees.  Four of the five grantees were in attendance and provided valuable input based on their experience with the Self Help program.

Written by Delane Johnson, Public Information Specialist

Left to Right: Mel Ellis, Director Single Family Housing, USDA Rural Development NC, Rich Davis, Acting Deputy Administrator, USDA Single Family Housing, Washington, D.C.

Left to Right: Mel Ellis, Director Single Family Housing, USDA Rural Development NC, Rich Davis, Acting Deputy Administrator, USDA Single Family Housing, Washington, D.C.

Games for Healthy Kids, One Step at a Time

Cross posted from the White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy


This week my son Devon showed me the power of digital games to motivate kids to exercise. This is the core idea at the heart of the Apps for Healthy Kids competition launched by First Lady Michelle Obama last week. As OSTP worked closely with the Department of Agriculture in designing the competition, I had talked with many of my colleagues about its promise. But nothing could have crystallized better for me the immense potential of this approach than witnessing the impact on my own son in real time.

Devon is 11 years old and has a group of four friends who spend much of their free time playing video games. My wife and I have struggled to find ways to get Devon outside to take a walk or throw a ball around. But, in his mind, sports pale in comparison to the challenges of mastering his favorite digital games.

This week Devon set his sights on a new game. He couldn’t wait for us to drive to the store together and was willing to burn his last birthday gift cards on the purchase. This game was much different than other games because it was bundled with a pedometer for kids. Devon strapped the pedometer to his leg. The more he walks in real life the more bonus features are unlocked in the video game. With new adventures to unveil, he couldn’t wait to get moving.

I told my son about the Apps for Healthy Kids competition, and he suggested that he write to the First Lady to tell her about his experience. I thought that was a wonderful idea. So, we sat down together and drafted this letter:

Dear First Lady Michelle Obama:

My dad told me that you think it is really important that kids exercise and eat right, so I wanted to write this letter to tell you about a new video game I just got because you would find it interesting. My parents are always telling me that I have been playing my video games all day and that I should go outside and play. My sister, Isabel, plays softball and soccer, but I’m not into that. I was really excited this weekend because my dad took me out to pick up the new Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver game that I ordered. The store helped me unlock a new character in my game when I picked it up, and they gave me a Poke Walker that I clip to my pants. It counts my steps when I walk. Today I beamed one of my Pokémon named Onix into the Poke Walker. When I walked around so did my Pokémon. He earned watts in the game and that helps him evolve. The book also said that when I earn enough watts I can start battles and catch other Pokémon that I usually can’t find. I want to earn enough watts so I can catch Castiform or Kecleon. The book says that once I catch them in the Poke Walker I can beam them back into my game. I haven’t done that yet. I need to take a longer walk so that I can earn enough points. Dad says it should stop raining soon and we can walk around the neighborhood. I hope you are having a good time at the White House.

Devon Emanuel

The next day at work, I was surprised to learn that my colleague Debbie Stine, the Executive Director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, had nearly the exact same experience with her daughter. Tina-Marie, also age 11, had purchased the same game and immediately started moving (including in the car on the way home despite being strapped into her seatbelt) to gather the precious watts so she can grow her Pokémon. “One of my friends brought her Poke Walker to school today and got 20 watts from just walking around the school!,” Tina Marie told her mom. Like my son, Tina Marie will be going to elementary school tomorrow with her Poke Walker strapped to her pants, taking every opportunity to take extra steps.

Is this the beginning of a new wave of technologies that will inspire and empower children to get active and eat healthy? When I was a kid, all we had was Pong! Now we have Dance, Dance Revolution, Wii Fit, and the upcoming Project Natal and Move as examples of active video game products. Will games like this not only capture kids’ imagination, but fundamentally change their behavior in high-impact ways over the long-run? I don’t know the answers to questions such as this. All I know is that I think I’ll take a walk with my son when I get home tonight.

Peter Emanuel is the Assistant Director of Chemical and Biological Countermeasures at OSTP and Devon Emanuel is a 5th grader at Emmorton Elementary School in Abingdon, MD