Cornell University is co-leading a $9.95 million, five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant that aims to transform nutrition and water use in the poultry industry in order to improve its environmental impact and enhance human health.

The grant, awarded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and co-led by the University of Arkansas, is among the largest grants ever awarded by the USDA, and dovetails with Cornell’s land-grant missions of research, extension, and teaching. “Poultry is a major animal source of protein to Americans, so it will be a great opportunity for us to improve production efficiency, quality of the meat, and economic returns with added values for the producers,” said Xingen Lei, professor in the Department of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-principal investigator. “It’s an effective way for us to make an impact.”

One of the projects Lei will lead involves using microalgae as an alternative feed protein. “What we want to do in this case is use microalgae to replace soybeans—this will reduce the competition between feed and food,” he said. “Also, microalgae capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and this will make production greener.”

Lei said his lab has already made strides working with algae as a protein-rich food source. However, algae are expensive compared with soybean meal, the current source of protein in commercial poultry diets. His goal is to improve the nutritional quality and the environmental value of the feed while making it more affordable and practical for farmers to use.

Through microalgae, researchers can introduce enzymes that favor unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D. In collaboration with Kimberly O’Brien, professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Human Ecology, Lei will look for ways to improve the chickens’ overall health and, by extension, the consumers’ health.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas will be developing ways to improve chickens’ gut health and resistance to disease, in addition to exploring how the industry can use water more efficiently.

Of the total funding, $1 million will go toward teaching and another $1 million toward extension. Minority representation in poultry science will be an important focus, researchers said.

“One of the main goals is to raise awareness about the impact of our food system on planetary health and to educate the next generation of food and agricultural leaders about sustainable agricultural practices,” said Dennis Miller, professor of food science and nutrition. “We hope to meet this goal through student internships in faculty research labs, a new undergraduate minor in sustainable agricultural systems and a Master of Professional Studies program in sustainable agricultural systems.”

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