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New technologies and need for renewable fuel to spark an agricultural revolution, says USDA undersecretary

When facing the great challenges of the 21st century, agricultural research will play a major role in finding the right solutions, according to Gale Buchanan, U.S. undersecretary for research, education and economics, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who spoke at Cornell in the Boyce Thompson Auditorium, Nov. 19.

The greatest challenge, said Buchanan, who works with the government, agricultural universities and American industry to promote research and education programs, is renewable energy. "We need to look the long range," he said. "The bottom line is for every two barrels of oil we use, we are finding one barrel. I am no mathematician, but at some point, it is going to catch up with us."

Viewing energy as "a critical requirement to our civilization," Buchanan said that in order to achieve energy security, the energy must be sustainable. And agricultural research can be part of the solution in the energy equation, he said.

"Energy from green plants, one photon at a time, is definitely one way to provide the energy," said Buchanan, who sees potential in such biofuels as corn-based ethanol alongside other energy sources, such as wind and geothermal power.

One way to move agriculture into the new century is to be more open to technology. "We must be receptive to capture the opportunities they present," said Buchanan, pointing out that nanotechnology, molecular biology and other sciences can bring new innovations to farmers in the form of new crop varieties, improved food safety and robotics.

Compared with in-house research conducted at the USDA, Buchanan sees a distinct advantage in such universities as Cornell, because they have "the capability of linking with other departments on campus." An agronomist by training, Buchanan served as a professor for 21 years at Auburn University and dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at University of Georgia before his USDA post.

Since agriculture is the major consumer of water, efforts must be made to maintain the resource. "Those in agriculture have to take the lead in managing in the water picture," said Buchanan, who sees no substitute for water and expects only greater demand in the future. Other major challenges, this century, he said, are in the areas of global climate and human nutrition.

In discussing the proposed 2007 U.S. Farm Bill, which is best known for providing subsidies to farmers, Buchanan said that a major criticism with it is that subsidies go to wealthy landowners.

"We want to provide a safety net for farmers but also to stay within constraints of the budget," said Buchanan. "Payments should be targeted to those who need them, but not to people who are living in Manhattan and happen to own a piece of land."

However, the bill also outlines funding opportunities for research programs, a topic of interest to the audience of professors and graduate students. When asked about the impact of the new bill, Buchanan noted that in the current proposal, $150 million is allocated annually for basic and applied research.

This event was sponsored by Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell.

Graduate student Alex Kwan is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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Joe Schwartz