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  • School of Integrative Plant Science
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The 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industrial hemp, including the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and the consideration of hemp as an agricultural product.

The change created an agricultural opportunity potentially worth billions of dollars, and thanks to a big push from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Cornell will play a major research role as that industry grows.

On Aug. 2, Schumer announced $500,000 in federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) to create the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository – a seed bank – co-located at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York. This funding, part of the Fiscal Year 2019 Omnibus Spending Package, builds on Schumer’s contributions to the 2018 Farm Bill.

“I fought tooth and nail to secure this federal funding,” said Schumer, the senate minority leader, “while also working to strip back the burdensome federal restrictions that held our farmers and growers back from growing industrial hemp as an agriculture commodity, because I knew the potential this crop had to transform the upstate New York economy.”

Industrial hemp is used to make a wide range of products, including fibers, textiles, paper, construction materials, cosmetics and food.

“The hemp seed bank and the research potential it gives our Cornell and USDA-ARS scientists will be vital resources for New York state farmers,” said Kathryn J. Boor ’80 , the Ronald P. Lynch Dean at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are grateful to Sen. Schumer for his hard work to secure this federal funding.”

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), said the hemp repository is a desperately needed resource. The seed bank will enable researchers to identify pest-resistant and disease-resistant genes, giving them the tools to breed new varieties. Getting to the root of crop health, Smart said, is essential for providing better resources to New York hemp growers.

At the new repository, the USDA-ARS will maintain the germplasm and collaborate with Cornell scientists, where they already partner on research for grape, apple, cherry, tomato and Brassica crops.

Understanding and cultivating these living, genetic resources provide the most promising ways to support local growers. The market for hemp has already skyrocketed in the U.S.: According to Cannabis Financial Network, the hemp industry was projected to grow from $400 million in 2016 to $2.1 billion in 2020.

Beyond New York, the new seed bank will benefit hemp growers all across the nation. Christine Smart, professor in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology section of SIPS, said these resources will let them breed hemp varieties that will grow well under different conditions.

She thinks cultivars developed at Cornell could be ready for growers within five years.

“The more germplasm that scientists have access to,” Smart said, “the better the chances are that we’re going to breed plants that are useful, whether it’s for managing pests or specific climates.”

Erin Flynn is senior manager of marketing and communications at Cornell AgriTech.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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