ITHACA, N.Y. — For the love of french fries, potato chips and New York’s $65 million potato industry, Senator Chuck Schumer announced Friday morning that $400,000 of federal funding is being given to Cornell University to upgrade a laboratory set on ensuring invasive species don’t destroy potato and root vegetable crops.

“A world without french fries would be a world I couldn’t even contemplate,” Schumer said.

Scientists are fighting the Golden nematode and Pale Cyst nematode. Although they’re about as small as a grain of sand, the pests damage the roots of vegetables. Crops contaminated with the pests can’t be shipped over state lines or overseas.

For instance, the eastern part of Idaho saw an outbreak of the nematodes in 2006 and was forbidden from shipping potatoes out of the state. As of last year, Japan still had a ban on Idaho potatoes.

Samples of dormant cyst nematode. At the center, the nematodes are attached to a root of potato. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

“It’s one of the world’s most damaging pests, and it can decimate a potato crop,” Schumer said.

In New York, there are 1,207 potato farms with 20,000 acres of cropland, making the vegetable number one in economic value in the state. An outbreak of the nematodes could cause local economies to be destroyed.

Cornell scientists, along with Agricultural Research Service scientists, have studied the pests for more than 60 years, creating potatoes that are resistant to the pests. But the nematodes are perpetually adapting the way they impact root vegetables.

New soybean cysts, for instance, infect the crop’s roots causing damage to the stem and leaves, all of which impact a farmer’s yield. The cysts are a direct effect of nematodes.

Schumer called the Cornell Nematode Quarantine laboratory “the main line of defense against this terrible infestation.”

Kathryn Boor, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said, “We take our commitment to our farmers in the state of New York very seriously.”

She said Cornell University is the only research facility in North America with expertise in biology-resistant breeding and on-farm management to combat the pests.

This, Schumer said, is why he endorsed Cornell getting this funding since last June.

“This is one of those things that has tremendous bang for the buck,” Schumer said. “If there was ever something worth doing, it’s this.”

And while the nematodes continue finding ways to attack crops, newer state-of-the-art equipment has become available to better research the pests and find ways to keep them at bay.

“The pest is not getting old, but the lab is getting old,” Schumer said.

From left, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, Cornell University President Martha Pollack and Kathryn Boor, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, try a New York potato chip. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
From left, Ph.D. student in plant breeding and genetics and Xiaohong Wang, principal investigator for the Golden Nematode Lab show Sen. Chuck Schumer dormant cyst nematodes. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
From left, Ph.D. student in plant breeding and genetics and Xiaohong Wang, principal investigator for the Golden Nematode Lab show Sen. Chuck Schumer dormant cyst nematodes. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

He said the $400,000 will go toward upgrading the facility and ensuring scientists can use it protect New York agriculture.

New Cornell President Martha Pollack said she first met Schumer within a few weeks of starting her new job, and he greeted her like an old friend. She said the university, which relies in part on millions of dollars worth of federal funding for research, has no better ally than the senator, who she said fought for funding the small but important laboratory at Cornell.

“Senator Schumer fights every day for us,” she said.

The federal funding is in addition to state funding approved for the lab last October when New York state officials also committed $1.2 million to the Cornell Nematode Quarantine laboratory to help upgrade the facility.

Related: Senator O’Mara announces $1.2 million for the nation’s only quarantine research facility for potato pest Golden Nematode

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.