By BEN MEYERSON, Capital News Service
BELTSVILLE (March 10, 2008) - President Bush is cutting budgets, and at the largest agricultural research center in America, it's all come down to the chickens.
On the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sprawling 7,000-acre Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Mark Jenkins is working on a parasite he said costs the poultry industry $1 billion a year worldwide.
When chickens have the parasite, called coccidia, "They don't absorb nutrients, and they lose weight—they're very inefficient at converting feed into weight," Jenkins said.
The work of Jenkins and his team has particular weight in Maryland, where 35 percent of the all the state's farm receipts came from chicken sales. As of 2003, 15,000 people in the state worked in the poultry industry.
But their research could be at risk—the project is one of six at Beltsville without funding in Bush's proposed budget for 2009. The cuts could eliminate the jobs of 13 scientists at the facility.
Though these projects have traditionally gotten their support from Congress' final budget as earmarks, nothing is certain in a tough economic climate, according to Sandy Miller Hays, spokeswoman for the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA branch that operates Beltsville.
"This is the first comment in a conversation that will go on for many, many months," Hays said. "Historically, what we wind up with at the end of that process is significantly different from what we start with. ... Does it mean these projects are going to come to an end? I think you'd have to have a crystal ball to figure that out."
Earmarks have become controversial as congressional pet projects bulking up the federal budget, and Bush has openly criticized them. Since taking office, he has routinely rejected projects placed in the federal budget by lawmakers the previous year.
Bush proposed reducing the Agricultural Research Service's budget by $84 million, from $1,121,041,000 to $1,037,016,000. The six projects at Beltsville account for $3.2 million.
On the chopping block at Beltsville is research on potato diseases, how to handle toxic sand from metal foundries, how to reduce the danger of lead poisoning from buried ammunition and poultry disease, as well as two projects dealing with medicinal applications for plant byproducts.
Coccidiosis—the disease caused by the coccidia parasite—rarely kills birds, and a bird infected with the parasite isn't dangerous to humans.
However, Jenkins said the parasite is everywhere.
"We've never found a farm it's not in," he said. Outside of chickens, "It sticks to everything—it's almost impossible to kill."
Jenkins and his team spend most of their time identifying strains of the parasite that farms send to them. Their eventual goal, though, is to create a vaccine to prevent birds from picking up the parasite in the first place.
If the program was cancelled, it would be a huge loss for the poultry industry, Jenkins said.
"There is an ultimate goal, and that is to develop a recombinant vaccine," which would inoculate the birds against all the parasite's strains, Jenkins said. "The problem with shutting this down is the knowledge and expertise will be lost, and we won't be able to take this work where it needs to go."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, whose district contains the facility, said he was disappointed in Bush's reductions at Beltsville.
"I am committed to fighting these ill-conceived cuts which will significantly impact our farm economy and the safety and nutritional value of our food," Hoyer said in a statement.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she too would fight for funding from her seat on the Appropriations Committee.
"President Bush's funding cuts to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center show how he continues to shortchange our domestic priorities," she said in a statement.
But Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union and a Maryland resident, said budget cuts need to come from somewhere.
"I think that if we're not talking about a blatant food safety issue, then why shouldn't the industry, which has an interest in keeping its chickens plump, invest their dollars in this?" he asked. "I would think that many of these profitable agriculture industries ought to be able to fully fund the work."
But in the end, Sepp said he didn't think the cuts would stand.
"It's not likely that any of these proposed budget reductions will ever make it through Congress," he said. "It's a shame because there has to be a place where we draw the line on government spending, and many agriculture programs are a good place to begin."