As we gathered with family and friends during the holidays, we probably gave little thought to how the food, fabrics, and holiday décor came to be. But, research and scientists have a large role in the food, fiber, and plants we've been enjoying. We can thank science and technology -- and American farmers -- for providing the cheapest, most abundant food supply in the world. In 2008, only 9.6 percent of Americans' disposable income was spent on food. Compare that to 1933 when 25 percent of the disposable income went for purchasing food. In France 15 percent of disposable income is spent on food; in Japan, 26 percent. Along with low cost, new products developed every year offer more convenience, longer shelf life, better nutrition, and new flavors.
Research which develops improved varieties of crops, improved disease resistance, and tolerance to pests appear to benefit only farmers and ranchers. But, they ultimately always benefit the public by making food more affordable and more available.
Each year, dozens of improved products and new varieties of fruits, nuts, and vegetables emerge from the laboratories and greenhouses of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). ARS is the research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Without ARS research, wheat yields would not have doubled or milk production per cow tripled in the last 50 years, meaning we'd all pay much more for food and our choices would be far more limited. The ARS's scientific programs have had a hand in holiday products from the current form of the turkey to the table linens to the festive poinsettia.
The holiday turkey we know with it's high percentage of breast meat was developed in the 1930's in response to a desire for a smaller, meatier bird with white feather quills. White feathers meant that any quills not totally removed during processing did not detract from the turkey's appearance. Today, that turkey line bred at the Beltsville (Maryland) Agricultural Research Center is part of the pedigree of nearly every turkey sold in the United States.
Scientists at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. have developed and introduced at least 26 varieties of hollies and 3 of poinsettias. Thanks to scientists, the compact, bushy holiday plant we enjoy is much different from the poinsettias that grow up to 8 feet tall in their native Mexico.
Poinsettias do not naturally produce brightly colored leaves, however. Scientists found that the plants require a specific balance of daylight and darkness to induce flowering. When a poinsettia flowers, the upper leaves -- or bracts -- turn bright red, and small yellow flowers form at the center of the plant.
Even the tablecloth the holiday feast sat on was touched by ARS research. Scientists in New Orleans, Louisiana, developed durable-press cotton fabric, which stays smooth after washing and drying so there's no need to iron the tablecloth anymore!
Apples bought at the grocery store may have been stored as long as 9 months, yet they remain crisp, thanks to controlled-atmosphere-storage methods developed by scientists at ARS. And, perhaps you've wondered how pre-packaged sliced apples can be offered at fast food restaurants. ARS scientists were involved in research that developed a coating that prevents apples from browning, so we can have that convenient, healthy option.
Carrots today have 75 percent more beta-carotene -- the orange pigment used by our bodies to create Vitamin A -- than they had 25 years ago.
ARS also does the research behind MyPyramid, the current food guidance system, and the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
To learn more about the role of research in our food supply, go to www.ars.usda.gov and select the publication "Science in Your Shopping Cart."