...From the pages of Agricultural Research magazine
Breeding a wheat variety with better rust resistance and devising an
areawide pest management plan to deal with grasshoppers are the kinds
of important successes that seem traditional for an agricultural science
agency like the Agricultural Research
Service. What might seem less apt for such an agency is research
that creates new, consumer-oriented products, such as flame-retardant
cotton carpeting. But this kind of research is a special part of the
This issue of Agricultural Research magazine focuses on some
of the many consumer products that are derived from ARS research. For
example, you can read about delicious new vegan chocolates (p. 4) and
an all-natural, biodegradable sunscreen made from rice and oat bran
mixed with soybean oil (page 13).
Why consumer products? When ARS research creates new ways to use agricultural
commodities, it helps ensure the economic viability of U.S. agriculture.
That new sunscreen could be an additional use for some of the 18 billion
pounds of soybean oil produced annually.
Everyone benefits. Increasing the number of uses to which agricultural
commodities can be put diversifies the market base, which helps the
farmer, and introduces a new range of products, which benefits the consumer.
The environment also benefits when the research finds a way to substitute
renewable agricultural resources as the basis for products that had
been based on petroleumsuch as developing a cornstarch-based superabsorbent
like Super Slurper.
Often the new-products research in which ARS invests is too long term
or high risk for private industries to chance. But after the research
succeeds, ARS turns it over to private companies, which develop and
produce the actual products consumers will buy, a process called technology
Research that directly benefits the consumer is not new for ARS. Back
in the 1920s, ARS solved the problem of how to give butter a longer
kitchen shelf life by making it with sweet cream in place of the traditional
use of sour ripened cream. This led to a major improvement in butter
production and the butter people buy, an improvement still in use today.
But the number of such consumer products from ARS has increased dramatically
in the past two decadesfrom cosmetics based on meadowfoam oil
to edible coatings to keep pecans fresh months longer, from thermally
sensitive cotton clothing to a product that lets lactose-intolerant
people eat dairy foods.
Part of the reason for the increase in companies taking ARS research
from the laboratory to market is the Technology Transfer Act of 1986,
which placed a new emphasis on commercializing federal research. Since
this legislation, ARS has become a leader in the federal government,
credited with more than 600 new patents and 1,100 cooperative research
and development agreements (CRADAs), which are formal arrangements enabling
ARS scientists to cooperate with companies on research projects of mutual
importance. Such agreements often go a long way to ensuring that our
research doesn't end up existing only in the pages of a scientific journal.
ARS does not patent research developments just for the sake of claiming
higher numbers of patents or even for the revenue returned to the U.S.
Treasury from license fees to use ARS patents. Businesses need to know
they can protect their investment before they'll be willing to spend
the dollars required to develop and market a new product. So, for some
research to make it to stores, a patent and a contractual license are
Once a company signs a license for an ARS patent, rarely is that the
end of the matter for our scientists. They usually work closely with
the company to scale up the technology and to iron out bumps along the
path to a marketable product.
Other times, ARS purposely refrains from patenting research developments
that should have widespread dissemination and do not require protection
of intellectual property rights to reach end users.
ARS doesn't reach agreements only with major corporations. Many of
our licenses and CRADAs are with small businesses, including start-up
companies formed just to turn a new piece of technology into a product
from which consumers can benefit. This leads to another benefit of ARS
technology transfer: creation of new jobs, often in small towns and
rural areas where jobs are in short supply.
The long list of consumer products that have come from ARS research continues to grow. ARS has a commitment to get its new technology, patented or not, into the hands of those who can put it to work. Information about ARS technologies available for licensing can be found at the ARS Office of Technology Transfer's web site at http://www.ott.ars.usda.gov, or by calling 301-504-6965.
Michael D. Ruff
"Forum" was published in the December 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.