July 31, 2014

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Says Universities Will Play Larger Role in Industry’s Future

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the University Monday to discuss the larger role private investors and universities will play in determining the future agriculture in the wake of the Agricultural Act of 2014.

“We’re having a series of roundtables today with folks representing a wide variety of interests at Cornell,” Vilsack said. “We’re discussing nutrition, we’ve discussed climate change and we just had a very good and informative discussion about the dairy processing industry, which is obviously a growth industry here in upstate New York.”

The act, commonly called the 2014 Farm Bill, is a five-year plan signed by President Barack Obama in February that is estimated to cut $8 million in food stamp aid over the next decade and eliminate crop subsidies worth $5 billion annually in favor of a new crop insurance system. Cornell professors have had differing responses to these provisions, according to previous Sun reports.“We now know that if we wait longer than we should to begin to address the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, it’s going to be more and more expensive to the economy.” — Tom Vilsack

One major development under the Agricultural Act is the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a federal nonprofit intended to fund research for a range of food, health and energy related fields, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Announced on July 23, the foundation’s 15-member voting board — which includes Prof. Kathryn Boor, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, as well as other major names from universities and the agriculture industry — is part of a recent effort to facilitate increased partnership between the government and the private sector in the realm of agriculture.

According to Vilsack, though Congress has provided $200 million for the foundation, these federal dollars can only be used to fund research if they are matched by private donations.

“In essence this is not a $200 million fund but ultimately at least a $400 million fund,” Vilsack said. “This is a new way of doing business at USDA — focusing on partnership, focusing on leveraging resources and trying to develop solutions to some of these vexing problems that we face.”

Due to the “huge portfolio” that falls under the USDA’s jurisdiction, Vilsack said he believes the foundation’s board will have a difficult job ahead balancing research topics to fund, among fields such as nutrition, climate change and genetics.

For instance, Valsick said that the cost for mitigation and adaptation to climate change is $150 million annually, an amount that will “increase substantially over the course of the next several years.”

“We now know that if we wait longer than we should to begin to address the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, it’s going to be more and more expensive to the economy,” he said. “Fortunately, in food production we have begun that process.”

Valsick also said that he believes there is a fundamental issue with the way sustainability is unclearly defined by producers and consumers of agricultural products.

“When I think of sustainability I think of it in three parts: There is an economic sustainability, there is a social sustainability, which is animal welfare, and there is an environmental sustainability,” he said. “If it’s a situation where everyone gets to define it themselves, for themselves, and it’s not necessarily science-based, then that creates some challenges for us in terms of market accessibility.”