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Safeguarding the Food Supply and Protecting Human Health

Chili peppers

Specialty crops, such as chili peppers, is one of four program areas for IR-4. (Cristi Palmer, IR-4 Project, Rutgers University)

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 USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

What began as a program to ensure the safe production of a diverse food supply is now providing a value-added application of its core expertise: protecting honeybees from parasites and people from vector-borne diseases.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funds the IR-4 Program (“Inter-Regional Project #4”), which was established more than 50 years ago and is headquartered at Rutgers University. The IR-4 funds laboratories that test pesticides intended to protect specialty crops. That testing generates data that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires for pesticide registration. Without the help of IR-4, the cost of the research required for pesticide registration for specialty crops would be prohibitive.

The IR-4 is a collaboration among NIFA, land-grant universities, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Foreign Agricultural Service, EPA, Department of Defense, specialty crop growers, and industry. The IR-4 helps growers increase yields of higher quality products and harmonizes regulatory standards that enhance international trade. According to a 2012 report, the program supports more than 104,000 U.S. jobs and adds $7.2 billion to the gross domestic product annually. This is a huge return on NIFA’s $12 million annual investment.

Executive Director of IR-4, Jerry Baron, and NIFA National Program Leader Rob Hedberg attribute IR-4’s success to engagement with grower organizations, regulatory agencies, and the agricultural community, saying IR-4 has become a global model for other countries to register safe pesticides.

Due to the efforts of IR-4’s biopesticide and organic support program, EPA recently approved the use of potassium salts of hops beta acids to protect honeybees from Varroa mites. These extracts from hops (the same plant used to flavor beer) are helping to protect pollinators from a major contributor of colony collapse disorder.

The IR-4’s public health pesticides program recently assisted in introducing “attractive toxic sugar baits” (ATSB) in the United States, which can devastate mosquito populations in less than a month. ATSBs contain sugar (the bait), garlic oil (which kills mosquitoes), and an attractant that targets specific mosquito species, such as Aedes aegypti (which transmits tropical viruses like dengue) and Anopheles spp. (which carry malaria).

“Recent threats highlight the desperate need for a stronger, diversified vector-control toolbox,” said Karl Malamud-Roam, PHP manager. According to Hedberg, the ability to apply knowledge gained for one purpose to a separate public health threat illustrates the “serendipity of having the right information at the right time.”

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

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