WOOSTER, Ohio – Chang-Won (Charles) Lee, a virologist with The Ohio State University, is making a significant contribution toward national and international food security. His research into microbes — things like bacteria, fungi and viruses — that live in a chicken’s upper respiratory tract is helping not only poultry farmers and their birds breathe easier, but consumers as well.
Avian flu is one of many respiratory diseases that can harm a bird flock. In 2015, a U.S. avian flu outbreak required the slaughter of 50 million chickens and turkeys. Even more alarming, it’s a zoonotic disease, meaning it can spread between animals and people.
China is currently in the midst of such an outbreak. Many live poultry markets were shut down to reduce human contact with infected birds after a surge in human avian flu infections. Since October 2016, at least 460 human cases of avian influenza have been reported, according to details released March 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lee’s research on poultry respiratory diseases, including avian flu, is featured in a new report, “Retaking the Field — Strengthening the Science of Farm and Food Production,” which highlights projects funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The report makes the case for stronger federal support of food and agricultural sciences research in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Thanks to an AFRI research grant, Lee, who is based at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, is leading scientists from 11 institutions who are working to determine all of the microbes in the poultry respiratory system. OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
The scientists will determine which microbes are hazardous, see how they are impacted by factors such as environmental conditions, and recommend new control methods and management systems for healthier barns and birds with stronger immune systems. Outreach is also built into the grant so farmers can learn how the latest research can help beat back the next harmful disease outbreak.
Funding, or more often the lack of it, is a constant for agricultural researchers. “The drought in federal funding of food and agricultural research still exists,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. “USDA’s AFRI program, the agency’s premier source of competitively awarded grants, generates the science that keeps our farms healthy. But farmers need a flood of research breakthroughs, and AFRI’s limited budget only allows for a trickle.”
Ohio State’s Lee agrees. “When an outbreak occurs, there is support from everywhere for new research,” he said. “However, the work needs to be done on an ongoing basis in preparation for the next outbreak.”
The 2017 “Retaking the Field” report shows how AFRI-funded scientists at 11 universities, including Ohio State, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Iowa State, Virginia Tech, Kansas State, the University of Nebraska, Cornell, North Carolina A&T, Penn State, and the University of California, Davis, are solving some of the thorniest questions in food production despite the USDA’s limited research budget. Even as the research budget for all federal agencies has climbed, USDA’s share has been cut nearly in half.
Grumbly notes that AFRI’s funding levels illustrate this trend. The program, which was first established in the 2008 Farm Bill, currently receives only half its authorized level of $700 million. As a result, the rate in which AFRI funding proposals receive approval hovers just above 10 percent, far below the rates found in European countries and elsewhere.
“Researchers are solving some of the most important problems that farmers face,” Grumbly said, “from bovine respiratory disease, which infects more than one out of every five beef cattle in feedlots, to rice and wheat rust, which keeps evolving to overcome scientists’ efforts to breed resistance. Too often, their success hinges on whether they secure enough funding to keep the lab doors open. Too much top-quality, high-impact research is unfunded and left on the cutting room floor.”
Chang-Won (Charles) Lee