Background on Agricultural Practices and Food Technologies

Agriculture has made a tremendous contribution to the quality of American life. It is not just an industry, it is the foundation of our civilization. Agriculture provides the basic essentials for living: the food we eat, the beverages we drink, the clothing we wear, and the materials for our homes. Without agriculture, we would have none of these.

Agriculture also provides us with many of our traditions and values. We celebrate agriculture by attending food festivals, visiting farms and wineries, planting gardens, and watching our favorite cooking shows on television. In the United States, consumers are fortunate to have a food supply that is affordable, safe, plentiful, flavorful, nutritious, and convenient. Thanks to agriculture, we can enjoy a bounty of food.


U.S. Agricultural Production is Top-Notch

Agriculture plays a valuable role in our everyday lives by not only providing us with food, but also by maintaining a strong economy. On a worldwide basis, more people are in some way involved in agriculture than in all other occupations combined. Agriculture is America’s largest industry—not computers or cars or entertainment—employing more than 20 million people in agriculture-related jobs.

In the past century, there have been tremendous changes in American agriculture. Farmers have become extremely efficient and have taken advantage of newer technologies. As a result, they are producing a wider variety of crops and producing them more efficiently. In 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the United States, and the average farmer produced enough food each year to feed 20 people. In 2002, the number of farms was estimated to be 2.16 million, and the average U.S. farmer produced enough food to feed almost 130 people.

In addition to providing an abundant food supply for domestic markets, U.S. agriculture exports crops to countries around the globe. Trade is essential to the U.S. agricultural sector, with earnings from U.S. agricultural exports accounting for 20 to 30 percent of total farm income. Almost $60 billion of American agricultural products are exported. As the population increases in the U.S. and throughout the world, there is an even greater demand for the food produced in the United States.

Still agriculture is primarily a family enterprise. Almost 99 percent of all U.S. farms are owned by individuals, family partnerships or family corporations. Less than 1 percent of America’s farms and ranches are owned by nonfamily corporations. According to the 2002 Census, the majority of American farms are small-scale, with just over 1.4 million farms having 1 to 179 acres. In comparison, only 77,970 farms are 2,000 acres or more.

Efficient Agriculture = Affordable Food for Consumers

Consumers reap the benefits from American food production capabilities. The percentage of income Americans spend on food has dropped by 50 percent since the early 1900s. According to 2004 statistics from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), American families and individuals spend, on average, just 9.5 percent of their disposable income (the portion available for spending or saving) for food. That means in only five weeks the average American earns enough disposable income to pay for their food supply for the entire year.

From Horse & Plow to High-Tech

No other profession or way of life has greater sentimental appeal to the American public than farming—families living in the country, working the land, raising livestock, taking part in a valued tradition. The farming and ranching lifestyle is still seen as a valuable and honorable profession. Much of that appeal is well deserved and still appropriate, but public perceptions of farming simply have not kept pace with realities.

While there are still many small, idyllic farms, there are also dynamic, high-tech/high-volume farm operations that have incorporated numerous mechanical and biological advancements. These advancements have resulted in dramatic changes in farming in the past century. For example, in the 1930s a farmer could harvest (by hand) about 100 bushels of corn in a nine-hour day. Today, combines can harvest 900 bushels of corn per hour.

Developments in science and technology have contributed to better soil, nutrient, water, and pest management, and to more efficient methods of planting, harvesting, storing, processing, and transporting farm products. These developments have resulted in more and better quality food than ever before.

To keep agriculture on the cutting edge, many farmers now implement a variety of technologies, including precision agriculture, remote sensing, computers, the internet, specialized software, global positioning, drip irrigation, and biotechnology. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a key technology utilized in precision agriculture. Linking to a system of satellites, a farmer uses a receiver to pinpoint his or her position to within inches. The information helps the farmer identify precisely where to plant, and when and where to apply pesticides and fertilizer.

Agricultural advancements also appear in much smaller forms, such as seeds. For farmers to optimize agricultural production, they must have competitively priced, highquality, high-yielding seed varieties with characteristics desired by consumers. Many of these varieties will result from advances in genetics and modern biotechnology.

Modern biotechnology includes a range of tools, including genetic engineering, that are utilized to develop beneficial traits in plant and animal agricultural products. For example, crops such as corn and soybean have been genetically enhanced for improved weed, pest, and disease management, reduced pesticide use, higher-yielding crops, reduced soil erosion, and reduced levels of natural toxins.

With today’s technology, farmers are better able to match seed characteristics and production practices to soil type and climate conditions. The result is higher yields with lower input costs from more efficient use of chemicals, fertilizers, and tillage. Ultimately, that means higher quality food at a lower cost for consumers.

Crops for Fuel and Pharmaceuticals

In addition to food, certain crops are providing fuel for American consumers. Biodiesel made from corn, soybeans, or other crops is one of many renewable fuels. Renewable fuels contribute to a cleaner environment, reduce pollution and reliance on foreign oil, and contribute to the rural farm economy by creating commercial markets for crops. With a record production of 2.81 billion gallons of ethanol in 2003, one billion bushels of corn and 12 percent of the grain sorghum crop were used to produce fuel for our vehicles. In addition, some crops are being bred specifically for use in pharmaceutical production. Of course, these crops are not intended for the food supply, and strict regulation is designed to keep them separate from food uses.

Pesticide Use in Agriculture

For decades, pesticides have been used as one of many pest management tools in agricultural production to ensure that high quality, safe, and inexpensive food can meet consumer demand. According to the American Cancer Society, pesticides play a valuable role in sustaining our food supply. They have helped increase crop yields dramatically and made available plentiful grains and a bountiful variety of inexpensive fruits and vegetables.

Indeed, pesticides have important benefits. But there are also food safety and health concerns associated with their use. By their very nature, most pesticides create some risk of harm. Pesticides can cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms. At the same time, pesticides are useful to society because they kill potential disease-causing organisms and control insects, weeds, and other pests.

The term “pesticides” refers to many types of crop protection products: insecticides control insects; herbicides control weeds; fungicides control fungi, molds, and mildews; fumigants destroy insects, fungi, and bacteria. Both chemical (or conventional) pesticides and biopesticides are used in agricultural production as needed to protect crops.

Pesticide Safety System

Pesticide laws, regulations, and policies ensure that pesticides are used correctly and that sufficient protection is provided to applicators, farmers and farm workers, consumers, and the environment. Several groups are responsible for ensuring the safety of crops treated with pesticides: state and federal government agencies, manufacturers, farmers, crop advisers, applicators, and consumers. Before a pesticide can be used, it undergoes extensive research, development, testing, and governmental review.

Government Agencies
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) share responsibility for the regulation of pesticides.

EPA and the states (usually the State Department of Agriculture) register or license pesticides for use in the United States and regulate their use. The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996 significantly changed the way EPA regulates pesticides. The requirements included a new safety standard—“reasonable certainty of no harm”—that must be applied to all pesticides used on foods. Before allowing a pesticide to be used on a food commodity, EPA sets tolerances (limits) on how much of a pesticide may be used on food during growing and processing, and how much can remain on food. These tolerances are designed to protect public health and the environment. In recent years, EPA has registered many new, safer/lower-risk pesticides.

The FDA monitors and enforces EPA’s tolerances in domestic and imported foods and animal feeds shipped in interstate commerce. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service monitors and enforces tolerances on meat, poultry, and certain egg products. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service administers the Pesticide Data Program, which tests commodities in the U.S. food supply for pesticide residues.

Pesticide Manufacturers
Pesticides must go through some 120 health, safety, and environmental tests to ensure their safety and effectiveness before being registered by the EPA. Development and testing by industry and registration by the EPA takes nine years and costs manufacturers $152 million to $184 million for each product.

On the Farm
Farmers are trained to use pesticides responsibly and keep pesticide use to a minimum. Pesticides are an expensive production input, so farmers do not use pesticides unless their potential benefits—such as improved quality, increased production, aid in harvesting, and prevention of crop loss—outweigh their costs of application. By reducing input costs, farmers can increase profit and help keep consumer food products affordable.

Certified crop advisers (CCA) and licensed pest control advisers (PCA) are highly trained and educated individuals that offer crop production and pest management recommendations to farmers. Recommendations address several areas, including the use of pest management materials, worker safety and environmental impacts.

Certain pesticides may be applied only by or under the direct supervision of trained and certified applicators. Applicators must understand pesticide product labels and the proper methods of application to apply pesticides safely and reduce risks to human health and the environment. Pesticide applicators are trained by state Cooperative Extension Service programs and are certified by state pesticide agencies. Training covers safe pesticide use as well as environmental issues such as endangered species and water quality protection.

EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides (WPS) is a federal regulation aimed at reducing the risk of pesticide poisonings and injuries among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. The WPS contains requirements for pesticide safety training, notification of pesticide applications, notification of workers, use of personal protective equipment, restricted entry intervals following pesticide application, decontamination supplies, and emergency medical assistance.

Protecting Children from Potential Pesticide Risks

Health professionals have paid close attention to the issue of pesticides in the diets of infants and children. The overwhelming scientific consensus of the Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and numerous other health authorities is that the health benefits of eating more produce far outweigh any possible pesticide-related risks.

Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “The risks of pesticides in the diet are remote, long-term, and theoretical, and there is no cause for immediate concern by parents. The risks to children over their lifetime of experiencing the major chronic diseases associated with the typical American diet far exceed the theoretical risks associated with pesticide residues.”

The FQPA set stricter standards that require EPA to place particular emphasis on children in making regulatory decisions about pesticides. For example, EPA must build an additional 10-fold safety factor into risk assessments to ensure the protection of infants and children, unless it is determined that a lesser margin of safety will be safe for this population subgroup.

The government is required to upgrade its testing and risk assessment methods to better protect children. EPA carefully evaluates children’s exposure to pesticide residues in and on foods they most commonly eat. EPA also evaluates new and existing pesticides to ensure that they can be used with a reasonable certainty of no harm to adults as well as infants and children. Both EPA and FDA currently evaluate dietary patterns as well as other differences between children and adults before determining whether a substance should be approved for use in or on food.

Animal Agriculture

Animal Production: An Important Part of the Agriculture Industry

Animal agriculture in the U.S. accounts for a significant segment of U.S. agriculture. It includes aquaculture, beef, dairy, goats, poultry, sheep, and swine. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), animal products account for the majority (51 percent) of the value of U.S. agricultural products, exceeding $100 billion per year.

Advances in animal breeding, genetics, and health have increased the quality and quantity of animal protein available to consumers. The per capita U.S. consumption of beef, pork, broiler, and turkey meat combined has risen from about 127 pounds in 1950 to more than 218 pounds in 2000.

The U.S. has the largest feed-cattle industry in the world and is the world’s largest producer of beef. Among livestock industries, milk has a farm value of production second only to beef. The U.S. is also the world’s third largest producer and second largest consumer, exporter, and importer of pork and pork products. The U.S. poultry industry is the world’s largest producer and second largest exporter of poultry meat. During the last two decades, the value of U.S. aquacultural production rose over 400 percent to nearly $1 billion.

Animal Diseases

Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE’s) are rare forms of progressive disorders that affect the brains of animals. They are caused by similar uncharacterized agents that produce spongiform changes in the brain. In animals, specific examples of TSE’s include: scrapie, which affects sheep and goats; bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which affects cattle; transmissible mink encephalopathy; feline spongiform encephalopathy; and chronic wasting disease (CWD) of mule deer, white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer, and elk. (ref. Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE), Veterinary Services, July 2000)

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is commonly referred to as “Mad Cow Disease.” BSE affects the central nervous system of cattle. The disease is transmitted when animals are exposed, through feed, to an infected cow’s brain or spinal tissue.

BSE affects only cattle. There is a similar disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), which is found in humans. There have been a small number of cases of vCJD reported, mostly in the United Kingdom. In the U.S. there is no significant risk of contracting the disease through consumption of meat, dairy products, gelatin, or other animal-derived products given the government’s surveillance and protection system. They include effective inspection programs and monitoring systems in place to ensure that beef, food and consumer products derived from cattle are safe. The federal government, beef industry and food manufacturers are working together to ensure a safe food supply for consumers.

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is a severe, and a highly communicable viral disease of cattle, swine and other cloven-hoofed animals. The disease, caused by a virus, spreads rapidly and is one of the animal diseases most dreaded by livestock owners.

FMD is not a threat to human health. There is no evidence that humans can contract the disease through consumption of meat, dairy products, gelatin, or other animal-derived products. FMD viruses can however, be spread by animals, people or materials that bring the virus into physical contact with susceptible animals. The U.S. has been free of FMD since 1929 and the USDA and other federal agencies provide stringent safety measures to keep the U.S. free of FMD.

While FMD does not affect human health directly; any impact would be mostly economic affecting livestock and related industries, including some restrictions on travel.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI or Avian Flu) Birds, like people, can have the flu (short for “influenza”). In a bird’s case, it is referred to as avian influenza and over the years different forms of the disease have appeared from time to time in regions all over the world including the United States. Left untreated, the more virulent forms of avian influenza can devastate an entire flock of chickens.

Currently a type of this avian influenza virus is affecting birds and poultry flocks in Europe and Asia. This specific form of influenza is designated H5N1. The type being reported is highly pathogenic which means it can spread rapidly among an entire flock of birds causing their death. The United States does not currently have the highly pathogenic form of avian influenza, but the USDA is putting safeguards in place to address this form if the disease should arrive on American shores.

According to the CDC, it is possible that the virus could mutate into a human strain of influenza virus. This could result in sustained human-to-human transmission and pandemic influenza. While some people outside the U.S. have become sick with a form of avian influenza, the H5N1 strain has so far only rarely infected humans. For the most part, these people probably became infected with avian influenza by inhaling the virus from infected birds or by transferring the virus from contaminated hands to their mouth.

According to the USDA, CDC and FDA proper handling and cooking provides protection against avian influenza and other viruses and bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli. Awareness and education about bird flu has increased around the world. The USDA recognizes the potential threat to animal and human health. It has increased surveillance and monitoring efforts to detect, contain, and eradicate any infected birds, before the disease spreads.

It is important to remember that fully cooked poultry products are safe to consume as the avian flu virus would be destroyed by following recommended cooking temperatures. See recommended cooking information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agricultural Systems

For a variety of reasons, farmers adopt specific agricultural systems—including organic agriculture, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and sustainable agriculture—that will reduce their use of pesticides and fertilizers and be more environmentally friendly. Among the reasons is growing public concern about food safety and the potential environmental impact of certain farming practices.

Organic Agriculture on the Rise

The organic industry is increasing in popularity and derives from small and large farms. According to USDA and organic trade groups, the industry is growing between 20 and 25 percent annually for the last several years. U.S. organic food sales reached an estimated $10.38 billion in 2003, according to an Organic Trade Association (OTA) survey. In comparison, overall U.S. retail food sales—at home and away from home—totaled nearly $900 billion in 2004, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products certify they are from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic crops are produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil, and water.

In October 2002, USDA launched the National Organic Standards for agricultural products. It marked the beginning of consistent certification and labeling of organic products. Now all foods that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic have to be produced and processed in accordance to the standards.

In addition, the USDA developed strict labeling rules that apply to raw, fresh products, and processed foods that contain organic ingredients. These rules are intended to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they purchase. For example, “100 percent organic” means a product contains only organically produced ingredients and “Made with Organic Ingredients” means a product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a governmentapproved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must also be certified.

USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food only in the way it is grown, handled, and processed. Consumers who purchase organically grown and processed foods as a way to reduce the potential exposure to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers should not assume that organic is pesticidefree. Insecticides such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and insecticidal soap, and fungicides such as sulfur and copper are used in organic production.

The ABCs of IPM

Pesticides are still used extensively in U.S. agriculture, but they are not always the first choice and often are used only when necessary to control pests. Growers are increasingly adopting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies to combat pests with decreased reliance on pesticides.

IPM is a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, physical, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks. Often, several IPM methods are used together. The following list highlights different methods:

  • Biological controls: use of beneficial insects/organisms to suppress pests
  • Cultural controls: use of crop rotation, cultivation/tillage practices, plant/row spacing, mulches, field sanitation to reduce pest problems
  • Physical/mechanical control: cultivation, hand weeding, use of traps to diminish pest pressure
  • Chemical control: use of pesticides
  • Genetic control: use of resistant plant varieties to avoid pest problems

The principles of IPM were developed more than 40 years ago as an alternative to the common practice of treating crops with rigidly scheduled applications of high-risk, broadspectrum pesticides. From its agricultural beginnings, the concept of IPM has been adopted as a superior way to control pests in many different environments. IPM methods are not only used in crop production, but also on golf courses, in backyard gardens and in schools.

The USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) implements a broad portfolio of IPM programs. The goals of the program are 1) to improve the economic benefits related to the adoption of IPM practices, 2) to reduce potential human health risks from pests and the use of pest management practices, and 3) to reduce unreasonable adverse environmental effects from pests and the use of pest management practices. Achieving these goals would benefit agricultural producers, the environment, pest management professionals and organizations, and the general public.

IPM works in partnership with nature to produce foods efficiently. Many of the nation’s leading food processors are working with their contract growers to develop new IPM strategies. These companies see IPM as an opportunity to reduce potential risk to farm workers and the environment and to promote public confidence in food safety. IPM methods will not necessarily eliminate the need for synthetic pesticides, but they will continue to reduce the reliance on pesticides.


Nanotechnology is poised to have a major impact on agriculture and food processing. It could increase the efficiency of agricultural production, improve the efficacy of functional foods (foods delivering benefits beyond basic nutrition), and offer ‘smart’ food packaging with built-in nanosensors to detect pathogens or contaminants. Nanotechnology is one of the United States government’s top research priorities. This pioneering scientific field has the potential to significantly influence our economy and to improve our standard of living. It is predicted that nanotech innovations will play an integral role in our everyday lives.

What in the World is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the science of working with extremely small particles of matter, 1-100 nanometers in size, to create new products and processes. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter (about one-millionth the size of a pinhead). This is roughly 10 times the size of an individual atom. A nanometer-sized particle is smaller than a living cell and can be seen only with the most powerful microscopes.

Nanotechnology has been around for decades, but is now emerging as a very promising new technology. Products featuring nanotech materials are already available to consumers, including golf clubs, tennis balls, sunscreens, cosmetics, paints, stain- and wrinkle-resistant clothing, dental bonding agents, and pharmaceuticals.

Some new nanotech products may be food and agriculture related. Numerous food companies are researching nanotechnology applications—and they are counting on these applications to bring safer, more nutritious, more convenient, and more flavorful products to consumers.

Among the nanotechnology research projects include:

  • Nanoscale devices and data loggers for detection of pesticides, fertilizers, and biological events significant to the final product quality for the life history of agricultural commodities.
  • Environmental issues and agricultural waste challenges that may be addressed with nanotechnological concepts include the extraction of biopolymers from agricultural by-products and the design of nanocatalysts for waste bioprocessing into food, feed, industrial chemicals, biofuels, and energy.
  • “Smart Systems”that will allow real-time monitoring and regulation of delivery of constituents (nutraceuticals, nutrients, drug, insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers, vaccines, etc.) to people, animals, plants, insects, microorganisms, soils, and the environment. 

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