Food Resources Science Team

Science Center Objects

The team studies the movement of toxicants and pathogens associated with food production through watersheds and aquifers, to water resources where exposure can occur. That information is used to understand if there are adverse effects upon exposure and to develop decision tools to protect health.

Team of scientists studied changes in nitrapyrin

A team of scientists studied changes in nitrapyrin — a nitrification inhibitor applied with fertilizers as a bactericide to kill natural soil bacteria for the purpose of increasing crop yields — occurrence associated with land use changes from March to June 2016. The above photographs document the following conditions: recent anhydrous ammonia application (upper left), corn planting (upper right), early emergence (lower left), and early corn growth (lower right). The corn field was upstream from the sampling site at West Branch Wapsinonoc Creek, Iowa (USGS Site ID: 0546494170).

(Credit: Dana W. Kolpin, US Geological Survey. Public domain.)

Access to an adequate, safe, and sustainable food supply is one of the highest priorities for our society. Agricultural crop and livestock production often occur within the same landscapes. Their yields as well as pests, diseases, and other threats are effectively managed by using a variety of tools such as synthetic nutrients, pesticides, and veterinary pharmaceuticals. Best management practices, manufacturer's guidance on safe use, and chemical registration and approval processes administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration help farmers minimize health threats. However public concerns about potential health threats to fish, wildlife, livestock, and humans posed by use of these tools are common, and are often based on perceptions rather than scientific information. 

The Food Resources Science Team designs and implements interdisciplinary science activities needed to help understand whether these concerns are warranted, and provides objective, unbiased information that decision makers need to address concerns where real. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Food Resource Science Team brings together a unique mix of experts in hydrologic, geologic, chemical, and biological sciences with specialized laboratories and field sites across the United States.

Current Science Questions and Activities

  • Nitrogen stabilizers such as nitrapyrin have been used effectively and economically for many years to increase crop yields. Does nitrapyrin in waterbodies receiving runoff from agricultural fields inhibit natural microbial cycling and(or) alter microbial community composition?
  • Herbicide safeners protect crops from herbicide applications and increases crop yields. Do herbicide safeners increase the toxicity in streams receiving mixtures of contaminants from agricultural runoff?
  • How does exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in water and sediment from agriculturally dominated watersheds effect the health of individual smallmouth bass?
  • Is selenium in runoff from irrigated fields toxic to the endangered razorback sucker?
  • Pesticides are used to increase crop yields and protect crops from a range of pest-related damage. Do current-use pesticides effect food sources for aerial insectivores in the U.S?
  • Are bees collected from hedgerows near or within sunflower fields planted with neonicotinoid coated seeds exposed to these neonicotinoids?
  • How do neonicotinoid exposures and health risks compare to other pesticides applied in the area?
  • Previous work has shown that field-realistic exposures of fungicides alone are not commonly acutely toxic to native bees. Are these pesticides causing chronic, sub-lethal, and/or synergistic effects with bumble bee pathogens that could be detrimental to their health?
  • What are the benefits (ecologically and economically) of conservation efforts to protect pollinator health from pesticide exposures in areas of intense agriculture?
  • Will chronic dietary exposure of developing monarch larvae to neonicotinoid insecticides significantly affect their development?
  • Does the absorption, distribution, metabolism, elimination (ADME) and toxicity of imidacloprid and metabolites in Japanese quail indicate its use as a seed-treatment could pose a risk to seed-eating birds?
  • Can zebra finches be used as a test animal model for neonicotinoid toxicity in passerine birds?
  • Veterinary pharmaceuticals are used to protect livestock health and enhance yields. Do short-term and(or) long-term (multiple generation) environmental exposures to 17β-Trenbolone, a synthetic anabolic steroid used as a livestock growth promoter, pose a health threat to birds?
  • Natural toxins include some of the most toxic substances known (for example microbially produced Clostridium botulinum toxins and fungal aflatoxins) that are 4 to 6 times more toxic that insecticides such as pyrethroids and organophosphates and can be associated with the growth, storage, and processing of food crops. Are environmental pathways of exposures to natural toxins from food production a health threat to fish and wildlife?
  • The Agricultural Health Study began in 1993, and is a prospective study of cancer and other health outcomes in a cohort of more than 89,000 farmers and their spouses from Iowa and North Carolina. While this long-term study has resulted in many important findings (for example paraquat is linked to increased risk of developing Parkinson's disease), no tap water samples have ever been collected as part of this ongoing human health study. Are contaminants in tap water exposure pathways related to cohort health outcomes?
  • Are there cardiovascular effects on fish from pesticides frequently detected in surface waters and fish tissues?
  • Are there cardiovascular effects on fish from human or veterinary pharmaceuticals frequently detected in surface waters and fish tissues?