Cornell University: State leaders seek farm bill feedback during AgriTech visit

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Public investment in agricultural research supports farmers, food security, economic development and environmental sustainability, Cornell researchers told New York Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado during a tour Aug. 26 of Cornell AgriTech facilities in Geneva, New York.

Delgado visited the campus along with New York State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball and other state officials as part of a statewide listening tour to gain input for the upcoming federal farm bill. Every five years, Congress authorizes a new farm bill, which governs and provides funding for a host of agricultural and nutrition programs. Congress has already begun hearings on the next farm bill, which is due to be voted on in 2023.

Delgado toured several Finger Lakes-area farms before visiting AgriTech and its industrial hemp breeding program, which he described as “a truly cutting-edge campus and program.”

Cornell leaders, including Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Jan Nyrop, the Goichman Family Director of Cornell AgriTech, led the tour to demonstrate some of the advances being made possible through public research investment.

“I hope one of the key takeaways today is to show that economic success and environmental sustainability in agriculture work together,” Houlton said.

New York is one of the top five hemp-producing states in the nation. A multimillion-dollar industry, hemp is used for medicine, food, clothing and as a construction material. Three graduate students in the lab of Larry Smart, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section, and Alejandro Calixto, director of New York State Integrated Pest Management, described work being done to combat pests and diseases that attack hemp plants, and breeding work being done to develop new hemp varieties best suited for growing conditions in the Northeast.

Doctoral student Jacob Toth described the economic and environmental benefits of a new hemp variety developed at Cornell that has the potential to produce 20 tons per acre of biomass, which can be used for textiles and as alternatives for wood in paper production and construction work.

“We are particularly excited about using hemp in construction materials, as the carbon dioxide that the plant removes from the air gets locked up for as long as the building stands,” Toth said. “And our new grain cultivar produces seeds with good oil and protein content, and has great potential for high-value products such as cosmetics and plant-based meats.”

Researchers also showcased a few of the hundreds of fruit and vegetable varieties, including grapes, raspberries and squash, that have been developed at Cornell.

After the tour, Ball and other state officials held a two-hour listening session, where members of the public were invited to share their feedback and suggestions on the farm bill. Speakers, which included farmers and Cornell researchers, advocated for improving tractor safety, paying farmers for ecosystem services like planting cover crops and adding vegetation along streambeds, reducing bureaucratic hurdles for farmers to access grants and other government programs, and increasing investment in agricultural research.

Nyrop said that public sector research investment has been stagnant since the 1970s and that China invests twice as much as the United States in research. Increased research investment in fruits and vegetables is particularly critical, Nyrop said: Fruits and vegetables account for 50% of agriculture sales and 80% of essential nutrients in human diets, yet receive only 15% of public research investment. Nyrop advocated for doubling agricultural research investment in the next farm bill, with special focus on supporting small-scale, young and otherwise disadvantaged farmers, and on interdisciplinary research.

“We have the most successful food system in the world – never before have so many people been so well fed – but we also face a lot of challenges,” Nyrop said. “We need to intensify our production of agriculture while addressing climate change, and those things are not going to happen without public investment.”

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