Grateful for Biden and bees | Opinion

By Mark Singel

With the enactment of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, President Biden has delivered on a promise that has eluded the last three presidents. The second piece of his social and economic package has passed the House and is likely to receive Senate approval in the next two weeks. The increase in jobs across all sectors is impressive. As we enjoy this holiday season, we should all be thankful that the Biden administration is focused and successful.

When Americans are asked for their assessment of the Biden agenda, it is clear that his legislative initiatives are popular. 78% of the population favor expansion of Medicare; 66% believe in affordable housing; 61% are for child care and pre-kindergarten initiatives. But this doesn’t stop the flamethrowers on the right from spewing a stream of thinly veiled hate speech at a man who is doing his job. Many of these personal attacks should be beneath any American citizen.

So, from this citizen on this Thanksgiving weekend, I say: Thanks, Joe.

Here’s another group that deserves our thanks: the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. It is my pleasure to serve as HU’s Board Chairman, and I have a front row seat to some of the most exciting innovations that the university continues to pursue.

Already a national leader in medical technologies, robotics, analytics, and advanced manufacturing, HU is turning its attention to the Keystone Agritech Initiative – a global public/private partnership that could enhance agriculture production in Pennsylvania and the nation.

The Keystone Agritech Initiative plans to build and operate a thousand-acre organic high tech facility in Pennsylvania that will put Pennsylvania on the cutting edge of advancements in how we grow food. Sound ambitious? You bet it is. But a delegation of farmers, researchers, investors, and retailers has just returned from a tour of the Netherlands and the latest controlled environment facilities that are dramatically increasing crop yields while reducing costs and saving the environment.

A model for Pennsylvania is the Agriport A7 outside of Amsterdam. Since 2006, this facility has become the premier climate controlled indoor agricultural facility in the world. It has created more than 6,000 jobs and has been a well-spring for training. The facility produces vegetables at a rate 10-15 times higher than “traditional” farming.

In the course of addressing its own development challenges, Agriport A7 has attracted remarkable spin-offs. The facility produces its own power and recycles rainwater for irrigation. Using natural crop pollination and protection products, it minimizes the need for pesticides. By producing its own electric power from geothermal and biomass it has made excess capacity available for other uses.

One major success story is the attraction of a massive Microsoft Data Center that has turned the entire area into a thriving, high-tech mecca for food and data production.

The Pennsylvania delegation returned with a wealth of new ideas and close alliances with some of the most innovative growers and horticulturalists on the planet. One company specialized in building state-of-the art greenhouses with autonomous growing to maximize returns. Another firm put artificial intelligence right in the farmers’ hands to assure accurate and perfectly timed application of water, light, and natural fertilization of crops. Another has harnessed the power of bees and beneficial nematodes to assist in pollination and pest prevention.

One of the most promising aspects of the mission was to bring a real-world perspective from a major potential end-user of food products. Giant Foods, based in Carlisle and Amsterdam, sent three of its executives to observe and brainstorm ways to bring Pennsylvania products to its shelves. The idea is to cultivate products close to their distribution network to assure quality and freshness for its customers.

Again, it is hard to underestimate the role of Harrisburg University in coordinating and nurturing the agritech movement. It is notable that Wageningen University in the Netherlands has been an active partner with private industry and visionary government leaders in applying research all over the world. It has impacted over 6,800 employees and 12,900 students in more than a hundred countries.

This is precisely what the Keystone Agritech Initiative intends for Central Pennsylvania and beyond. By finding new ways to make hi-tech farming more accessible and efficient, it can become more profitable and scalable on a global scale.

Look for announcements in the months and years to come but the Keystone Agritech Initiative is off to a great start with a staggering upside for food production in Pennsylvania and the world.

Progress can be measured in different ways. Federal policies that benefit citizens matter. Harnessing nature and new technologies to feed them is just as important.

This holiday season, I am grateful for Biden and bees!

Mark S. Singel is a former Democratic Lieutenant Governor and Acting Governor of Pennsylvania.

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