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Toward Sustainability Foundation Supports Innovative Research

By Ted Boscia

For a decade, the college has bolstered its sustainability research with a steady stream of gifts from the Toward Sustainability Foundation (TSF), a Massachusetts-based organization founded by an anonymous, eco-minded Cornell alumna. Since 1999, TSF has provided almost $550,000 in funding for approximately 75 faculty and student projects that examine the technological, social, political, and economic elements of sustainable agriculture.

Workers pick Liberty apples at Cornell Orchards as part of a TSF project
comparing organic and integrated fruit production systems.
Workers pick Liberty apples at Cornell Orchards as part of a TSF project comparing organic and integrated fruit production systems.

In many cases, TSF funds help fledgling projects take shape until they can attract significant grants from federal agencies and other sources. For instance, the Department of Horticulture’s Northeast Organic Network (NEON), a consortium of farmers, researchers, extension educators, and grassroots nonprofits that shares information on organic agriculture techniques, formed in 2001 with TSF money and later received a $1.2 million USDA grant. NEON meets critical needs in organic farming, one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture.

"The TSF gifts provide a real opportunity to start new and innovative research programs from the ground up," says Ian Merwin, the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Horticulture.

Merwin first received an unsolicited gift from TSF in 1999 and has since overseen an annual program of competitive TSF grants for Cornell researchers. In a typical year, Merwin and a review committee—which includes CALS graduate students, organic farmers, and faculty— awards funds to as many as 10 projects that focus on sustainability and organic farming.

The TSF program has expanded to include grants for CALS international graduate students. In 2009, five students will each receive $5,000 in TSF funding to examine sustainability issues in their homelands in Africa and South America.

"The TSF grants are a valuable opportunity for international students to conduct field studies in developing nations," explains Merwin.

This year, for the first time, TSF awarded grant money to the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF), a multidisciplinary research center that encourages scientists at Cornell to collaborate on sustainability issues. CCSF used a $40,000 TSF gift to help cover basic research expenses for two projects chosen by its Academic Venture Fund. TSF funds will also support graduate students on the projects.

"In achieving sustainability, scientific or technological solutions alone will not be successful in the absence of social and political understanding and acceptance," says Anurag Agrawal, CCSF associate director and CALS associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "TSF funds contribute to our larger communal enterprise of scholarship—especially involving students—that addresses these major issues."