How a government shutdown affects your kitchen table
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With a possible government shutdown looming, media outlets are once again focusing on all the ways that closing the federal government will affect the American people: processing delays in Social Security payments, frozen federal loan programs, and government employees and contractors being furloughed. And while those issues hit close to home for many of our country's citizens, there is one issue that hits at the heart of the home — the kitchen — for all of our citizens: The interruption of vital food research.


Like 2013's government shutdown, this proposed shutdown comes during harvest season, the time of year when agricultural researchers determine whether the fruits of their labor have resulted in new crops and processes that will efficiently and sustainably feed our families. But a shutdown means that U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other federally employed scientists will be forced to stop work, literally being forbidden to enter their own fields at this crucial time. Nor can their non-government colleagues enter the fields to continue the research. The potential result: losing an entire year of expensive-to-reproduce studies that could lead to improved human and environmental health, as well as power the growth of local and state economies.

A prime example of such an impact can be found in the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) November 2013 report, "Impacts and Costs of the October 2013 Federal Government Shutdown." U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists were unable complete field-testing of a technology to prevent the spread of Asian carp, an invasive species, into the Great Lakes. Testing was delayed by half a year, time that the endangered Great Lakes fisheries didn't have.

Many examples of such deleterious delays can be found right here in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Long-term collaborations between the college's faculty and those employed by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service came to a halt in 2013 and will do so again if action isn't taken to prevent a shutdown this week. Such collaborations include the closure of one of only two national quarantine facilities to safely study invasive pests that can devastate potato production, other root vegetables and tomatoes. Programs investigating pioneering breeding techniques for rice, wheat, cassava and other global staples will be stopped, along with multiple studies exploring ways to tackle malnutrition in both developed and developing countries through micronutrients, biofortification and probiotics.

Additionally devastating to our food systems is that while current research will be stopped, many new research programs cannot even be started. According to the OMB report, federal support for new agriculture research was effectively halted due to "furloughs of 98 percent of National Science Foundation employees and nearly three quarters of the National Institutes of Health."

But it wasn't just data being collected in the field that experienced an interruption: Thanks to the shutdown, data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Economic Research Service were not able reach farmers who rely upon them to make decisions on what to grow and when to sell.

Furthermore, the very safety of the foods on our tables was compromised as the shutdown delayed "nearly 500 food and feed domestic inspections and roughly 355 food safety inspections under state contracts."

With only 2 percent of the U.S. population directly involved with agriculture, it is not surprising that there was very little, if any, coverage of the impact on agriculture during 2013's shutdown. We hear the term "farm to fork" bandied about with abandon, but many Americans have difficulty identifying fresh fruits and vegetables. But all Americans should know that what happens on Capitol Hill this Wednesday directly affects what happens in their kitchens.

Boor is the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Boor is a member of the board of directors of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), an independent nonprofit corporation created under the 2014 Farm Bill to oversee national research into food, agriculture and some other sciences. She researches biological factors that affect transmission of bacteria in food systems, from the farm to the table.