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Chardonnay flour, fertilizer from tires, and other USDA discoveries of 2013

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From frozen OJ concentrate and permanent press cotton fabric to recyclable glue for stamps and mass-produced penicillin in WWII, many discoveries out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already been widely adapted for commercial use. If you’ve ever had blueberries or cranberries and if you’ve ever played sports on Tifsport turf, it’s likely thanks to USDA research.

“Taxpayers need to know that they are being positively impacted by government,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack tells Businessweek. "Every dollar invested in agricultural research returns $20 to the economy,” he adds in a news release

Vilsack (pictured above) is committed to fixing the innovation-perception gap facing the agency. And the USDA’s newly released, 209-page “Report on Technology Transfer” is chock full of goodies. The agency filed for 147 patents and received 51 last year. Here are 10 of the coolest breakthrough tech from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in 2013: 

  1. Flour from chardonnay grape seeds, a waste product of the winemaking process, might lower cholesterol and prevent weight gain. (Works in hamsters!) Not to mention, the process could help reduce the cost of wine. 
  2. An enzyme identified in sand flies can be used to develop insecticides that protect troops in Iraq from the disease-spreading pests.
  3. Fertilizer from tires could provide nutrients for zinc-deficient soils. Tires contain 1.5 percent zinc because of the vulcanization process. Grinding up used rubber can help reduce cadmium, a toxic metal that is naturally taken up by grains and cereals.
  4. A packaging insert that emits an antimicrobial vapor could extend the shelf-life of fresh produce like strawberries. The vapor surrounds the fruit, reducing water loss and decay, and it could also help treat citrus canker, which causes lesions on fruits. The single-use packets could help the international fresh-produce industry save more than $1 billion annually.
  5. Gold nanoparticles in a handheld device could help detect the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. Since gold can scatter and absorb light, these nanoparticles can be used in spectrometers to detect infected cells in blood samples. 
  6. Oat concentrate can be used to develop healthier varieties of yogurt, instant puddings, custard, and ice cream. Oat carbohydrates are what gives oatmeal that creamy, less runny property.
  7. Window cleaners that use a biodegradable solution of nanoparticles can prevent water-beading. This could be especially useful for solar panels and car side windows that have no wipers. 
  8. Lawn clippings, tree prunings, and leaves could be harvested by cities into bioenergy. These are untapped resources make up about 164 million metric tons of dry biomass that’s collected or recycled from urban areas in the U.S. annually. 
  9. A computer-based model of the fluid milk process could help farms lower their greenhouse gas emissions. On-farm production generates 70 percent of the emissions due to methane from cows and manure; off-farm activities, which include packaging and refrigeration, make up 30 percent. The dairy industry’s goal is to reduce emissions by 25 percent per gallon of milk by 2020.
  10. The full genome sequence of domesticated tomatoes as well as its wild ancestors reveals the genetic basis for taste, quality, size, nutritional content, yield, and resistance to disease. 

Here’s the entire “Annual Report on Technology Transfer FY2013” [pdf]. 

In addition to the 100 labs it staffs, the USDA also partners with and provides grants for scientists outside the agency. Passed in February, the 2015 Farm Bill includes a provision to establish a privately run research branch called the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (PDF), headed by scientists nominated by the National Academy of Sciences and private agriculture concerns, Businessweek reports. The government will provide $200 million in research funding, which must be matched by funds from outside investors before any grants are awarded.


Image: Vilsack in Albuquerque last month / U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr CC BY 2.0

— By on April 29, 2014, 10:33 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure