Increased ag research funding needed to provide a bright future for our next generation

Photo: Entomologists and students inspect the hive of the Pollinator Network @ Cornell

On behalf of FedByScience and the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, welcome to the first in a series of posts that highlight the revolutionary – and publicly funded – food and agriculture research that is so critical to our future.

Agriculture faces grand challenges on a global scale, with a projected two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century. Some estimate that we will need to double our current food production capacity in the next 30 years to ensure that the global population has enough healthy and safe food to eat.

Yet, since the early 2000s, federal spending on U.S. agriculture and related research has declined. The United States has slipped from our position as the world leader in food and agricultural research. China has outpaced us in public support for agriculture research and development since 2009, and Brazil and Argentina now outspend us on agriculture R&D entirely.

As dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, I see the life-changing impact of research in the life, agricultural, environmental and social sciences every day, particularly on the communities and businesses of New York State, where Cornell serves as the state’s land-grant institution.

Cornell is unusual as an Ivy League university with a land-grant mission. In other words, we have a responsibility — based on the federal legislation that supported our founding and our ongoing operations — to produce research, teaching and outreach programs that target the pressing needs of our communities. Here are three examples of publicly funded research that support this critical mission.

Cornell entomologists are working to protect New York’s honeybee population, which is in serious decline. Bees and other pollinators are essential to crops that comprise our diet, contributing roughly $170 billion a year to the global economy. Working directly with beekeepers across the state, our researchers have identified critical and widespread threats, which include the Varroa mite and its associated viruses. Working with our outreach associates on integrated pest management plans, beekeepers across New York are adjusting how they target the Varroa mite and anticipate lower colony losses this winter.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s plant scientists are working on ways to grow high-quality produce through controlled environment agriculture (CEA), especially in regions of the United States and the world where the climate makes it challenging to meet the year-round demand for local fresh produce. In New York, for example, the lettuce we consume travels an average of nearly 3,000 miles. The drawbacks of transporting fresh produce over great distances include reduced quality, increased cost and a greater carbon footprint. CEA is a promising solution, offering lower transportation and water costs, greater land-use efficiency, and a valuable connection between people who live in the communities and the food they consume. Federal funding is helping our researchers test CEA’s large-scale viability to meet food supply demands for larger populations.

Emerging threats to food also demand our attention and research expertise. For example, new research from our scientists has identified a fungus capable of spoiling even pasteurized apple products. This fungus is of particular concern in New York State, as we grow the second-largest number of apples in the United States and are the number one producer of processed apple products, such as cider, juice and canned apples. Researchers detected the fungus in 34% of soils sampled from orchards across the state. Our scientists will be working hard to find ways to prevent apple product spoilage from this fungus.

Access to safe, nutritious food and a healthy environment is a fundamental human right. The need for healthy food will only grow as we look to the future. There is no issue of greater importance for our experts in the agricultural and food sciences and few more deserving of federal support. 
Written by:
Kathryn J. Boor, Ph.D.
Cornell University Ronald P. Lynch Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Co-Chair, FedByScience
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