The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.
Thomas Jefferson, In Services to My Country (ca. 1800)
Neither my overseers nor manager will attend properly to anything but the crops they have usually cultivated; and, in spite of all I can say, if there is the smallest discretionary power allowed them they will fill the land with corn, although even to themselves there are the most obvious traces of its baneful effects. I am resolved, however, as soon as it shall be in my power to attend a little more closely to my own concerns, to make this crop yield [i.e., give way] in a degree to other grains, to pulses, and to grasses.
Letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson (October 4, 1795)
New Crops Development a Primary Goal when USDA was Established
Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That there is hereby established at the seat of the Government of the United States a Department of Agriculture, the general designs and duties of which shall be to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.
The opening section of the legislation establishing the new
U.S. Department of Agriculture (May 15, 1862)
We are probably far from possessing, as yet, all the [crops] for which nature has fitted our country. To find out these, will require an abundance of unsuccessful experiments. But if, in a multitude of these, we make one or two useful acquisitions, it repays our trouble.
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Drayton (1786)
United States agriculture is based on crops once considered new**, and new crops research was championed by the founding fathers. The United States, despite its large landbase, is the source of only a few economically important crops. Even corn (maize), the major grain of Native Americans, resulted from introductions from Central and South America, as did beans, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, and potatoes. Colonists introduced wheat, rice, barley, oats, forage, fiber, fruit, and vegetable crops from Europe and Asia. Some native crops such as sunflower and strawberry were developed abroad and reintroduced to American agriculture as profitable new crops. During the 200 years since Jefferson argued the critical importance of new crops to a strong American agriculture, many potentially profitable new crops have been introduced, only to languish, potential benefits unrealized, because public funds necessary for development were lacking. The twentieth century has continued to witness the introduction and/or the development of successful new crops such as soybean--now a major crop of the United States and of the world, avocado and pistachio in California, and pearl millet in the southeastern states. Regrettably, the United States has not taken a long-term, comprehensive, strategic approach to crop diversification.
The agrarian history of the United States is in many ways a chronicle of the rise and fall of new crops species. But through a process of introduction, trial, and error, U.S. agriculture has become based on a rather narrow group of crops. Almost 80% of annual row-crop acreage in the United States is planted to wheat, corn, and soybeans. As a result of this concentration, many growers have few alternatives, and low prices on major commodities have a disastrous economic effect.
To stabilize farm income, a system of federal programs including crop subsidies and cropland reduction developed. These programs have been enormously expensive. An estimate of costs from 1978 to 1994 is $291 billion (in 1987 dollars). Adding interest, lost crop wealth opportunities, and multiplier effects will more than double these astronomical costs to U.S. taxpayers (Jolliff 1996). Payments in turn are distributed unevenly among the various agricultural sectors (Carr 1992). Yet despite these programs, farm numbers, farm populations, and rural prosperity continue to decline ominously.
As these events have unfolded, a traditional American solution--that of searching for new opportunities through crop diversification--has ceased to be a major part of U.S. agricultural policy. Rather, the focus has been on increasing the yields and decreasing the production costs of traditional crops. The policy of concentrating research and farm support programs on a few major commodities runs counter to repeated recommendations from task forces, individual researchers, and government personnel to create policies encouraging the development of new crops and new products (Table 1). The key constraint seems to be that no single voice speaks for new crops whereas major commodity crops have established constituencies and therefore dedicated support.
Recently, interest in new crops has intensified as the result of a number of interacting forces. The southern corn leaf blight epidemic of 1970 and the worldwide loss of biological diversity have been responsible for an upsurge of interest in germplasm diversity. Over much of the last four decades, low prices for major commodities--punctuated by brief periods of prosperity--have rekindled among growers centuries-old concerns about profitable crop alternatives. The continued strength of the environmental movement has spurred interest in a more sustainable and diversified agriculture while consumer demand for new foods and products has increased as a result of changing demography and health concerns. Finally, economic forces continue to attract innovators and entrepreneurs who see potential in new crops and products.
Federal funding for new crops research has been quite minimal in recent years (Jolliff 1989) and has occurred mainly as an offshoot of political interest in new uses of current commodity crops such as the use of corn for ethanol or for biodegradable plastics. The 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act created the Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization (AARC) Center to provide funds for the development of new crops, new uses, and new products; since the program's inception in 1992, however, only 15% of available funds have been awarded to new crops development. Other federal programs involved somewhat in new crops investment are found primarily in the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) or are supported by small grants administered by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). The ARS has funded research on alternative oilseeds (National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, Illinois), on developing new industrial oilseeds and natural rubber and latex (Phoenix, Arizona), and on developing kenaf and other fiber crops (Weslaco, Texas).
Current state research efforts in the area of new crops have been scattered and fragmentary and have tended towards the short term as funding priorities have shifted. Support from agricultural experiment stations in all states has declined greatly as these institutions have focused on basic research and biotechnology funded by national grants programs and private industries. A number of states (Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Oregon) have small programs specializing in new crops, but funding is marginal or has been decreased. State departments of agriculture have focused primarily on commodity crops. A national organization, the Association for the Advancement of Industrial Crops (AAIC), was formed in 1988 to promote new nonfood crops. Small programs in private foundations are involved in alternative crop agriculture.
Occasionally, private companies are interested in a new crop as an opportunity; typically, however, they take the cautious approach of waiting until someone else develops the acreage before they commit company resources. The seed industry is reluctant to put resources into new crops development and prefers to devote breeding efforts to major crops.
Nonetheless, interest in new crops remains high in the research community and among many farmers who actively seek new crops despite the fact that initial risks can be high--especially in the absence of research and development support. Industry, especially the processing sector, often has an interest in new crops, but only if public funding can raise production above a certain threshold. Other governments have recognized this barrier and have provided sufficient funding to help boost new crops production to levels required to obtain industry participation. Canada successfully undertook this strategy with canola, and the European Community now is providing substantially increased funding for the development of several alternative crops, with an emphasis on industrial crops and biodiesel fuels. For the period 1995 to 1998, the European Community has budgeted $200 million for research on industrial crops and the Dutch government alone plans to spend $50 million over the same time period on alternative oil seeds (Capelle 1996).
Despite the successes of a number of new crops in the United States and abroad and despite increased grower and researcher interest, there is no concerted U.S. national policy focused on the introduction, development, and commercialization of new crops. Because of the complexity of new crops development, rapid progress is difficult, and the path to success for each new crop is neither simple nor easy. The development of crops was a process perfected by primitive peoples over untold generations of prehistory. New crops development is a process that cannot be achieved in a few years, or during the attention span of most funding agencies.
There are other roadblocks to new crops development that are created by federal policies and politics. Because federal programs such as crop support payments, production loans and crop insurance, and technical advice are limited to traditional crops, they represent a strong disincentive for farmers considering the risks and benefits of the production of new crops. Support for new crops is fragmented and is not a priority for the traditional commodity groups commonly influencing federal policy. Clearly, initial stages in the development of new crops require various forms of federal and state support and intervention (Jolliff and Snapp 1988). The Canadian government's methodical research and development program for low-erucic-acid rapeseed (canola) has provided a dramatic model of what is needed and what can be accomplished (Busch et al. 1994).
To capture the benefits of new crops in American agriculture, a coordinated national policy that encourages and supports new crops research and development programs should be created. This policy should foster regional and national cooperative efforts between farmers, industrialists, and researchers in fields as diverse as agronomy, botany, economics, food, nutrition and health, industrial engineering, and natural products chemistry. The consensus among new crops researchers is that a number of alternative crops will be successful, and some will be extremely successful; but the winners will depend on the mix of market acceptability, research information, income incentive, and enthusiastic and persistent crop champions. Federal government support of new crops programs would be a wise and long overdue economic investment in the future.
Some new crops--winter canola for example--can offer excellent winter-time erosion control. When several crops are in production, each with different planting and harvest dates, the economic impact of weather extremes and disease epidemics is diminished and the demand for labor and equipment spread out. Both factors can improve farm efficiency. Finally, one of the major benefits of diversification is income stability in the face of low prices due to over-supply of a single commodity.
Converting crop acreage into new industrial crops by decreasing production of major commodities often produced in surplus will decrease the amount of federal commodity support needed and will encourage the expansion of industry. New crops may decrease the importation of numerous crops and materials, many of which are of strategic importance. Examples include natural rubber and latex such as guayule, a number of waxes, resins, vegetable oils, gums, and sources of medium- and long-chain fatty acids. Most grains and oilseeds can be used for a variety of products over time, a fact illustrating the value of a diverse crop resource base.
1. The long-term nature of crop introduction. The aforementioned new crops case studies indicate that successful new crops development often is a lengthy process and that 10 to 40 years or longer often are necessary to discover, to domesticate, and to commercialize major new crops successfully. It is the long-term nature of new crops development that deters the private sector from including it in research and development programs. Nothing can be done without suitable germplasm and plant breeding research that is a long-term activity and must receive government and institutional support in the early stages. Thus, institutions such as the USDA-ARS and state agricultural universities and experiment stations must participate in new crops development.
2. High risk. New crops introduction, with its high failure rate, is inherently risky, at least over the short term. Bottlenecks are many and include problems with production, crop adaptability, and, most important, market forces. Because crop adaptation is involved, research must be multiregional. Often the tremendous benefits of success may not accrue to the originator, a fact that deters private sector investment. The geographic regions of environmental and economic adaptation for potential new crops often are unknown at the outset of work on domestication and improvement. For example, wild rice was improved substantially as a new crop in Minnesota, but California subsequently adopted the crop and now dominates production.
3. Coordination problems. Growers ordinarily are not interested in new crops without an assured market, and marketers will not handle new crops without an assured supply. Because of this dilemma, an independent and neutral party is needed to bring researchers, growers, processors, and marketers together within and between regions. Furthermore, the successful introduction of new crops involves solving problems that transcend disciplinary boundaries, and coordinating marketing problems that involve both public and private sectors of the economy. Transdisciplinary effort and cooperation are needed that extend well beyond the attempts most current institutions make with multidisciplinary research. For example, the Canadian government changed rail freight rates, created grading standards, invested heavily in production research, and examined the health and safety risks and benefits of canola.
Recommendations for new crops development have been made regularly for more than a century, but, in spite of these appeals, underinvestment continues at great economic, social, and environmental costs. An effective policy must be based on a reallocation of resources equal to the task. The authors believe that three steps must be taken if this objective is to be accomplished.
To more strongly encourage USDA's efforts in new crops development, the authors suggest including under research priorities legislative language specifically supporting new crops:
It shall be national policy to diversify agriculture by the development of new crops, thereby providing farmers with more crop options, strengthening the renewable resource base, and stimulating additional rural economic development.
An innovative new research and development entity is needed to provide the critical mass of talent and resources needed to boost new crops to a self-sustaining level and to catalyze the Jefferson Initiative. It is proposed that this entity be called The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Crop Diversification and that it be established with a progressive vision of how science can be employed on behalf of agriculture. The Jefferson Institute, comprised of a national research and development center and 8 to 10 cooperating regional centers (Fig. 1), would employ interdisciplinary teams to address the interlocking problems of breeding, production, utilization, and marketing.
The benefit of a national center is that it would have the capacity to achieve major new crops introductions, to develop public awareness and interest, and to engage the participation of many partners, including major agribusiness firms. Regional centers would complement the national center by allowing optimal testing and development of varieties adapted to each region; by obtaining more complete involvement of researchers, extension specialists, and other agricultural experts across the country; and by developing the localized link to farmers, processors, and marketers that is needed to establish new crops in each region.
There are various models for funding the proposed Jefferson Institute. The authors of the document estimate that a minimum of $20 million/year is required to initiate the program. Funding must come primarily from the USDA, especially in the initiative's early years, but the Institute would be expected to use grants and contracts to leverage other funding from public and private sectors. As specific new crops moved into commercialization, packages of funding and resources could be organized from state and private sources to build on federal investments.
Organizationally, the Jefferson Institute could be set up as a nonprofit research institute with USDA and other funding, or by establishing institute components through cooperative agreements between the USDA and universities. Regardless of the exact model, the authors expect the Jefferson Institute to be affiliated with Land Grant universities and to have close ties to the ARS. If given sufficient flexibility, the institute would be able to cooperate with universities, government agencies, and the private sector in breaking down barriers to new crops development. The advisory panel with representatives from industry, farm groups, government, nonprofits, consumer groups, and research and extension should be able to guide institute centers in strategic planning for the new crops development effort.
The authors of this report are convinced that a focused effort led by the Jefferson Institute, working with a multitude of cooperating partners under the banner of the Jefferson Initiative, is the most effective way of capturing the economic and environmental benefits of new crops in an increasingly diversified U.S. agriculture. The Jefferson Initiative proposes the kind of substantial, long-term, and coordinated frame-work necessary for the creation of a successful national strategic program in new crops development.
Public concerns over food safety, commodity program costs, and agricultural sustainability have become important policy issues in the last two decades. Restriction of research funding and crop support payments to major commodity crops has undermined the potential of new crops to alleviate related concerns and pressures. Although support for the development of new and alternative crops has been proposed consistently, publicly funded research has been scarce and fragmented.
The authors of this document propose the Jefferson Initiative as a way to focus on new crops policy reflecting Thomas Jefferson's belief in the critical importance of new crops to American agriculture. The Jefferson Initiative would provide leadership in the search for and the development of new crops to improve the sustainability of U.S. agriculture through diversification. Coordinated support for new crops exploration, domestication, production, processing, utilization, and marketing offers tremendous potential benefits to all involved in the agricultural sector--producers, industries, rural communities, and consumers.
In 1924, about 5 million bushels (bu) of soybeans were produced in the United States, with yields of 11 bu/acre; in 1994, about 2.6 billion bu were produced on 62 million acres, with yields averaging 42 bu/acre. To bring soybeans from a forage to a crop grown for oil and high-protein meal cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $5 million from 1912 to 1941; the current annual value of the crop is estimated at more than $13 billion. Had there been no public-private partnerships or integrated efforts at production and marketing, soybeans still might be a minor crop, and many farmers in the United States would forfeit the income opportunity that soybeans now provide.
Canadian and European nutritionists became interested in rapeseed oil because it has a significant fraction of long-chain monoenoic fatty acids. The identification of selections low in erucic acid resulted in the first release of low-erucic rapeseed in 1968. By 1970, nutritionists had demonstrated that the low-erucic rapeseed oil was nutritionally superior, and Canada converted its more than 4 million acres to low-erucic varieties (renamed canola) in 2 years. In 1994, there were 14.3 million acres of canola in Canada that were producing an annual value of approximately U.S. $1 billion.
Canola production and consumption is the fastest growing segment of the oilseed industry and is increasing at an annual rate of 8%. Canola production began in the United States in the mid-1980s, and by 1994, U.S. production was 447 million lb on 354,000 acres, with an annual value of $50 million. Expansion of the U.S. canola industry, however, is checked by restrictions on market access, unavailability of appropriate varieties, challenges regarding production, and lack of infrastructure. Limited crushing capacity makes it necessary to transport most U.S. grown canola to Canada for processing. The current annual U.S. consumer demand for more than 400,000 tons of canola oil imports represents a major opportunity for U.S. producers, a demand that could support more than 2 million additional U.S. acres in canola.
Agronomic studies and breeding efforts supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development through the Collaborative Research Support Program and conducted in Nebraska and Kansas have demonstrated that it is a promising grain crop for areas of the United States in which drought, soil type, short season, or excessive heat diminishes the yield potential of sorghum. Also, short-season pearl millet hybrids are a promising double-crop after wheat in the Midwest. Pearl millet is a preferred food grain in Africa and has been proved a superior feed for poultry, swine, and fish. In 1994, a newly developed grain-type pearl millet was planted on more than 15,000 acres in Georgia and Florida for poultry feed.
The formation of the California Pistachio Association in 1976 levied growers and processors for funds to support production research and to educate growers and processors. The advent of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 and subsequent embargoes of Iranian pistachio imports helped stabilize U.S. pistachio prices. The pistachio industry now is a major California nut industry, with 74,000 acres planted, an acreage exceeded only by that of almonds or walnuts. In 1995, farm gate value of the crop (147 million lb) was $170 million, with a retail value of approximately $440 million.
With the aid of federal support from a Small Business Innovation Grant (SBIG), a cooperative USDA grant to the University of Nebraska, and an AARC Center investment, the corporation created a means of using syriaca seed floss as a nonallergenic fill to replace imported duck and goose downs in comforters. Two hundred acres of milkweed now are being grown in Nebraska, and company sales have surpassed $1 million; expansion to 900 acres is expected for 1996. The strategic plan of the company calls for expansion into nonwoven uses such as batting made with other natural and synthetic fibers, as well as yarns, pulps, and papers.
Taxus brevifolia was found in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, the habitat for many endangered species, but the tree had to be destroyed if the bark was to be extracted. A renewable source thus was needed to meet demand. Subsequently, precursors of paclitaxel were extracted from the needles of many Taxus species to produce semisynthetic Taxol®. The drug from this source was approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late 1994. Bristol-Myers Squibb, which was responsible for producing the drug, contracted with a number of companies including the Weyerhaeuser Corporation (Washington) and Zalenka Nursery (Michigan) to provide a renewable source of needles. Twenty to 25 million shrubs now are being cultivated to meet the demand for Taxol®.
|Year||Statement and reference|
|1786||Writings by Thomas Jeffersonz|
|1862||Congressional Legislation Establishing U.S. Department of Agriculture (Rasmussen 1975)y|
|1894||Pepper Report, U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture (Taylor and Taylor 1952)|
|1895||George Report, U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture (Taylor and Taylor 1952)|
|1920s||Need for relief from surpluses (Holmes 1924; McMillen 1929)|
|1935||Chemurgic Movement founded (Barnard 1937; Benson 1937)|
|1957||New and Special Crops Report (Task Group on New and Special Crops 1957)|
|1983||Plants: The Potential for Extracts, Protein, Medicines and Other Useful Chemicals (U.S. Congress 1983)|
|1984||Development of New Crops: Needs, Procedures, Strategies, and Options (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology 1984)|
|1987||New Farm and Forest Products: Responses to Challenges and Opportunities Facing American Agriculture (Sampson et al. 1987)|
|1988||New Crops and New Farm Products (Congressional Research Service Report)|
|1989||Growing Industrial Materials: Renewable Resources from Agriculture and Forestry (U.S. Department of Agriculture Task Force Report)|
|1990||Alternative Opportunities in Agriculture: Expanding Output through Diversification (U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Report #633)|
|1991||Agricultural Commodities as Industrial Raw Materials (Office of Technology Assessment Report)|
|1992||New Crops, New Uses, New Markets (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1992)|
Fig. 1. The Jefferson Initiative to diversify crop production in the United States would be catalyzed by the Thomas Jefferson Institute, comprised of a national research and development center and cooperating regional centers. The Institute would stimulate partnerships with both public and private sector collaborators through grants and contracts derived from federal funding.