On July 12, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on  the role of technology and innovation in specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops. Prior to the hearing, committee chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) stated, “As we look at the farm bill through the lens of the current farm economy, innovation and technology will remain essential for farmers and ranchers to continue producing more food and fiber with fewer resources.”

Specialty crops receive only one percent of total Farm Bill funding and 15 percent of Farm Bill research funds. The University of California estimates an investment of $10 million to $20 million will be required to support research and development of critical technologies for each specialty crop.

Warming temperatures are expected to expand the potential ranges of agricultural pests and diseases. While the Farm Bill’s crop insurance programs have been critical for farms hit by disease, Paul Heller, vice president of Wonderful Citrus’s Texas branch, said funding for disease research is just as important. Citrus greening disease has caused a 75 percent decline in Florida’s citrus industry since it first appeared in 2005, and though there is still no cure, the USDA has invested more than $400 million since 2009 to address the disease. Heller also suggested farms could utilize high-resolution surveys to help remotely identify threatened or heavily impacted areas.

Climate change will likely intensify drought conditions, particularly in California where over two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown. One precision agriculture project in California is working to improve water management in specialty crops with targeted irrigation systems. Andrew LaVigne, president of the American Seed Trade Association, believes biotechnology will also be helpful for producing disease-resistant and drought-resistant crops. Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) agreed and stated, “Biotechnology is one of the ways we are going to help eliminate starvation around the world.”

Industry representatives stressed the importance of continued federal support for specialty crop research. The USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) and Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) currently provide funds for research that addresses specialty crop industry needs. With a $3.2 million grant through SCRI, researchers at Cornell University are developing broccoli varieties that are able to grow under East Coast climate conditions. Some varieties are already on sale in U.S. markets.

With the threats of water shortages, increasing pests and diseases, as well as a shrinking agricultural workforce, witness Gary Wishnatzki, Owner, Wish Farms, Plant City, FL said, “Innovation will be the key for maintaining our nation’s ability to feed itself, and this committee should fight for investments in technology and research for the specialty crop sector.” 


Author: Sara Taginawa


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