Harnessing the Power of Caterpillar Saliva

By Dan Klotz, March 15, 2017

Some of the most exciting innovations in farm technology have their roots in insect secretions—like caterpillar spit.

Tomato plants, you see, respond to caterpillar saliva by producing hairs on their leaves that are sticky and contain compounds that are toxic to the caterpillars. Gary Felton, PhD, of Penn State, is looking at the genetic roots of this response so that plant breeders can develop new tomato breeds that need less insecticide.

Dr. Felton’s research is funded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the premier peer-reviewed competitive grants program of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). His project and ten others funded by AFRI were featured in a new report from the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation.

Many of these projects have economic impacts of more than a billion dollars.

At Texas A&M, for example, researchers are working to solve bovine respiratory disease, one of the most lethal threats to the beef and dairy industries.

At Virginia Tech, researchers are studying destructive micro-organisms to figure out how to eliminate soybean field infestations.

These innovations have the potential to benefit millions of Americans, our economy and the environment.

But the AFRI program is underfunded.

AFRI receives only half of what was authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. USDA’s share of the federal research has dropped from almost 6.5 percent in 1973 to under 3.4 percent in 2014. While the overall scope of federally funded research has grown, USDA’s limited budget has remained practically flat.

With the 2018 Farm Bill discussions kicking off, SoAR and its coalition partners want research to be one of the topics on the table. As Dr. Felton notes in SoAR’s report, the success rate of AFRI grant proposals has plummeted.

Without more funding, too much good science—and potentially the solutions to some of agriculture’s most pressing challenges—gets left on the cutting room floor.

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