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Budget Cuts Threaten Food Safety Research Center

Proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's budget could shutter the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center, where researchers work to ensure the safety of products that cross from Mexico to the U.S.

Deanna Chapa, a molecular biologist, researches the psyllid disease on young citrus plants in a greenhouse on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, at the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Research Center in Weslaco, Texas. The center faces imminent closure due to federal budget cuts.

Within 80 miles of Weslaco, there are nine bridges linking the United States and Mexico. Tons of agricultural products move between the countries each day: Vegetables from Mexico and cantaloupes from Central America arrive in Texas while beef and grains are sent to Mexican markets and beyond.

The Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center, where researchers work to ensure the safety of products that cross the bridges, is in the middle of it all. Now, as Congress considers closing the center, there are growing concerns in the agricultural community about the future safety of crops imported into the United States.

Proposed cuts to United States Department of Agriculture research programs have put in jeopardy the South Texas center, and nine others around the country. Although the cuts are not finalized, a House proposal directs the agency to focus on “highest priority research.” The Senate version of the budget also includes the closings — at an estimated one-time saving of $39 million — but acknowledges that “laboratory closures often cost money in the short term and do not necessarily provide real savings.”

The Kika de la Garza Center works on pest risk analysis, to identify threats that imported crops could bring into the country. A June report by the Texas AgriLife Research program at Texas A&M University called the center a “strategic defense” against invasive species that could harm agriculture and contaminate the food supply.

Texas is the second-largest point of entry for fruits and vegetables into the United States market. The A&M report estimated the value of agriculture in the Lower Rio Grande Valley at $732 million, with a statewide economic impact of $1.6 billion.

Robert Mangan, Kika de la Garza’s coordinator, said researchers often traveled to other countries to learn how outbreaks of foreign pests and diseases could affect agricultural products.

“What they are closing are units that can quickly respond to these problems, and once they are lost there will be a long delay in addressing outbreaks that may arise,” Mangan said.

In addition to developing quarantine and inspection measures to address contaminants, the center researches fruit fly and fever tick eradication and citrus- and potato-related diseases.

The center is also working with United States Customs and Border Protection to eliminate Carrizo cane, a fast-growing invasive weed that grows up to 30 feet tall along the Rio Grande and hinders law enforcement patrols. That research will continue at another Texas USDA facility, Mangan said.

Under the cuts proposed by the House, Agriculture Department research facilities could transfer their projects to universities, but those institutions would have to provide the financing. Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, said that local leaders have held discussions with universities but that “the likelihood of any projects being salvaged would be limited at best.”

“What worries us the most about the closure is that the center has been doing research that no one else has been doing,” Prewett said.

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