At the North Carolina Agriculture & Biotechnology Summit on November 18-19, thought-provoking speakers explored the intersection of science, politics and economic development in the biotechnology industry.
There was a healthy component of farmer participation on the podium, but unfortunately not enough farmers were able to attend to push the coffee break discussions towards addressing the applied side of biotechnology. But if there had been a bunch of growers thinking creatively and spontaneously about the current state of the art, perhaps some fairly wild thoughts might have cropped up:
(1) The genetic potential of wild soybean (and other wild relatives of commercially available species.) Dr. Tommy Carter at USDA ARS is already crossing wild soybean with modern cultivars using old-fashioned field breeding and phenotyping by eyeball. The assumption is that yield and resistance genes in the wild ancestor of modern soy will be unlocked and shared with soy breeders. When was the genetic potential of wild soybean last tapped? Perhaps not since the early 18th century when soy was first introduced in the British colonies of North America? This is an example of some simple, dirty biotech that’s begging to be done.
(2) How about an ag biotech solution to North Carolina’s most economically significant yield robber of soybean and many other crops – the whitetailed deer? Deer depredation accounts for tens of millions of dollars of lost farmer income each year. Biotech solutions, y’all? So far, the best chemical solution for deer has been elemental – the metallic element of lead, with a copper jacket, dispensed at the rate of 3000 feet per second.
(3) The great, inadvertent nationwide experiment for breeding a better weed taught us a biotech lesson. We did it ourselves and developed a non-GMO herbicide resistant superweed in a scant 10 years. It happened in the field and we can do it again with other pests and not just in North America. Think about that before exporting ag biotech solutions as economic development tools to developing countries.
(4) Nutraceutical products for animals? According to conference speakers, the biotech revolution held out the promise of packaging vaccines, beneficial nutrients and vitamins, and medicines into commonly consumed grains and vegetables. Apparently industry is not pursuing much in this direction, probably due to a myriad of consumer and regulatory concerns. But what if we as soy growers could offer a functional soy product to our livestock customers? In addition to the protein, if soy meal also delivered health benefits currently delivered by other means, or perhaps not even available to swine, poultry, cattle and fish in current production systems? Is it far-fetched? Conference speakers said that technological evolution in the biotech industry is happening at an astonishing pace. Things that may seem far-fetched today may be the norm within a decade.