U.S. representatives from central Illinois and Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said they have high hopes for a common plant they believe will be a "wonder weed," during a tour of the ISU Farms near Lexington.
More than $20 million in federal money, 10 research farms and 80 acres are involved in research on pennycress.
“We can now turn this weed into a canola product, so it has oil and protein meal that has value for animal feed and for fuels,” said ISU genetics professor John Sedbrook.
Research by Sedbrook and colleagues at Western Illinois University has shown that pennycress can produce up to 1,500 pounds of plant matter per acre of seeds, and that in turn can yield more than 60 gallons of oil per acre. That oil can be turned into biodiesel and bio jet-fuel.
“Because we know what’s happening in both Arabidopsis and canola, we can literally copy and paste that information into the pennycress genome,” said covercress researcher Michaela McGin. “Making those targeted edits and then producing a canola covercress.”
Dietz said he is proud of the eight full-time employees at the farm and of the students who have helped make breakthroughs in genetic research.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis said the first grant money came about a year ago.
“For those who are studying ag right now at ISU and pennycress, your future is very bright,” said Davis, a Taylorville Republican. “This is just one of those opportunities to be able to work with state officials and our local university officials, to do things that are going to benefit this country. Not just Illinois, but this country and world, substantially in the future.”
Taylor represents the 13th Congressional District that includes ISU. His opponent in the November election is Springfield Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan.
Sedbrook said one of the advantages of pennycress is that it can be a winter cover crop to prevent erosion and generate income for farmers in a season they do not grow other crops.
“It’s not like covercress will just sell the seeds and walk away. They will be working closely with farmers,” said Sedbrook. “They will be doing heavy lifting.”
“When you look at pennycress, it has a significant effect on the environment and how it helps the environment,” added said GOP Congressman Darin Lahood, who also represents part of McLean County. “With the fuel that’s created, we learned about the aviation biofuel industry and how fuel from pennycress can be applicable to that.”
LaHood of Dunlap faces Democrat George Petrilli in the election next month.
Members of the Illinois Farm Bureau have praised President Trump’s efforts to reduce the trade deficit with China. LaHood said Trump has done well on that front.
“If you look at the trade agreements the president has put in place, USMCA, with Mexico and Canada, that’s great for our farmers,” said LaHood. “You look at the phase one deal with China, China is on the hook to buy $60 billion worth of farm product between now and next year.”
LaHood said those agreements and another pact with Japan will produce agriculture sector jobs and economic opportunity.
The overall national trade deficit, however, has grown in the last three-plus years.
“Is there more we can do? Of course there is, but I think the president has done a remarkable job on those three trade agreements helping our farmers,” said LaHood.
Lahood said the U.S. has only 4.5% of the world’s population.
“Our farmers need markets. They need customers around the world,” said LaHood. “We have to continue to look for trade opportunities in this country in order to do that.”
Illinois has led the country in soybean production and 25% of those soybeans go overseas.
“We’ll have to see what happens in the election. I think he will get re-elected and if he doesn’t…we’ll look forward to working with the next administration,” said LaHood, “to advocate for our farmers.”
Critics of the president’s trade policies note continued erosion of manufacturing sector jobs to overseas firms, despite administration efforts.
President Trump’s diagnosis
The election is now three weeks out and the second presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 15 has been canceled.
“I think most people would like to see a debate in person, I’d love to see a debate like we had last Wednesday, with the vice presidential candidates,” said LaHood. “I think we ought to do everything we can to have two more debates.”
LaHood echoed an administration line of thought that turns away from what Democrats view as the president’s lack of emphasis on masks and social distancing.
“Hopefully, the president can use this as a teachable moment, as an example, for how we move on and how we get through COVID,” said LaHood. “We continue to struggle with it. Obviously, it has affected many things, but luckily the president recovered well, the first lady recovered well. Hopefully, they can use that as an example.”
Amy Coney Barret
Davis declined to take questions not related to the media event at the ISU Farms, though confirmation hearings have begun for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
LaHood called Barrett an exceptional nominee and a "genuine, sincere person."
“If you look at her work on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and if you look at the people who have written in on behalf of her, she will do a very good job this week,” said Lahood.
Some legal scholars have suggested Barret is a little more mainstream than portrayed by Democrats in her position on stare decisis, the doctrine that cases once decided should not be readily overturned. The argument runs that Barrett may be less likely to overturn precedents such as the landmark abortion case decision Roe v. Wade than some originalists would like.
LaHood said Barrett has been clear that she will let the facts of a case speak when a matter comes before her.
“That has been her experience doing that,” said LaHood. “I don’t think she is going to prejudge any issue, and I think she is going to have to answer those questions this week.”
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