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Federal support for farm animal research diminishes

Michigan Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A report published last April in Science magazine decries the lack of funding for research involving the use of farm animals as well as other related problems in the world of animal science.

The article, called “Farm Animal Research in Crisis,” has eight authors, including three from Michigan State University. According to the paper, published in the April 24 issue, the way farm animal research is funded has never been very good and has resulted in funding through Congressional earmarks and other ways that are inadequate.

The paper states that the USDA’s competitive grant program, called the National Research Initiative (NRI), was replaced last October by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The new entity has more Congressionally authorized funding than the NRI, but the authors state that for 2009 the actual appropriation for the program was only $201 million. The authors also complain that, in contrast to the National Institutes of Health, the AFRI is not getting any economic stimulus money.

“Thus, it remains to be seen whether the change in title and mandate of the agency will improve future prospects for research on farm animals and whether the congressionally authorized $700 million per year in funding for AFRI will be appropriated,” the paper states.

The paper also states that funding for animal science departments from state and federal agencies has gone down 44 percent in the last two decades and that the number of faculty positions in animal science departments at some large land grant universities has fallen by more than 50 percent in the last 30 years.

James Ireland, a professor in the animal science department at MSU and a co-author of the paper, has been at MSU for 30 years. He said originally MSU had three full animal science departments: animal husbandry, poultry and dairy. Somewhere along the way they were merged into one department.

Thirty years ago MSU animal science had 120 graduate students and now there are only 30, he said. He added that there are also fewer and fewer animals on MSU’s research farms, though part of the reason for that is environmental in addition to the expense.
“The telling number is the loss of students,” Ireland said.

In addition to the above problems, the authors state that there is not enough funding for biomedical research involving farm animals. They ask the question, “are farm animals really necessary to advance biomedical research?” They answer their question in part by stating that 17 Nobel Prize winners have used farm animals “such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses and chickens as research models, yet their value is generally underappreciated.”
According to the paper, farm animals such as pigs are better research models than rodents to the extent that their physiology is closer to humans.

“In the (19)40s, 50s and 60s a lot of the discoveries were made using farm animals,” Ireland said.

Yet fewer scientists are being trained to work with large animals and there are fewer research centers designed to do this type of research. The main problem seems to be the extra expense of using animals other than rodents, mainly mice. Since mice are relatively small and reproduce quickly, they are less expensive to maintain than larger animals, such as farm animals.

The authors don’t really offer any easy solutions to the problem of funding for research involving farm animals, but do have some suggestions. One is that the “cultural” divide between colleges of agriculture and colleges of human medicine, veterinary medicine and basic science must come to an end. They declare the “protected island fortress” of agriculture to be an anachronism that no longer works in an age of dwindling resources.

Also, “administrators must not back away from defending the use of farm animals for both agricultural and biomedical research.” When asked if this statement was a reference to animal rights activism, Ireland said, “I know there’s anecdotal evidence that they get to policymakers and politicians.”