Soybean seed for amazing medical breakthroughs and Clary sage — to meet the demands of the $10 billion fragrance industry — were just two biotech options discussed at two meetings held in eastern North Carolina in December.

Titled, “AgBiotech Opportunities for Farmers and Growers,” the meetings held in Plymouth and in Sampson County, N.C., opened the eyes of hundreds of farmers as to the opportunities for biotech in agriculture.

What is biotechnology? Technically, it is a toolbox in living cells and molecules used to make products that solve problems.

Norris Tolson, president and CEO of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, says he defines biotechnology in a much more simplistic way in which his farm upbringing shows through. “To me biotechnology is $30 an hour and plenty of jobs,” Tolson says.

At a time when the country was mired in a recession and unemployment topped 10 percent in many Southeastern states, jobs in biotechnology in North Carolina increased by 6.3 percent. Jobs in the biotechnology world in North Carolina pay an average of about $30 per hour, he explains.

“When we get into what biotechnology can do and will do for agriculture in North Carolina, we believe the same level of employment opportunities and high paying jobs will be available throughout the rural areas of our state,” Tolson adds.

North Carolina’s agriculture farm-gate is currently valued at $74 million. Over the next decade Tolson says the Biotechnology Center is to grow the state’s agriculture industry by $30 million a year.

“Our No. 1 goal is to grow jobs. If we grow jobs, we grow small companies into big companies. The agriculture sector and biotechnology jobs in rural areas of the state can be a tremendous economic shot-in-the-arm to our rural economy,” Tolson says.

Speaking at the Plymouth meeting, North Carolina State University Corn Specialist Ronnie Heiniger stressed that agriculture is at a turning point. “The era of petrochemicals is dying. The age of biotechnology is replacing fossil fuel-based products,” he said.

Big yield increase needed

By 2025 corn growers will need to produce 230 bushels per acre to meet the growing food, feed and energy demands for corn products. Biotechnology is pushing yields up, but the upward trend has to go faster to meet world demands and more dependence on biotechnology is the only way to get there, Heiniger said.

“In the future we are going to have to learn how to manage crops that produce pharmaceutical compounds that improve human health or nutritional qualities that help overcome shortages in human nutrition around the world,” he added.

“And, of course we will have to manage crops that contribute to biofuels. Food crops in a biotechnology era will be more than products used to feed humans and livestock.”

Penelope Veazie, a fruit and vegetable post harvest specialist at North Carolina State University, says applying biotechnology to harvesting, storage and transportation of fruit and vegetable crops can enhance the economic and human health value of these crops.

For example, raspberries grown in western North Carolina, can produce a net profit of $50,000 per acre. The challenge, Veazie says, is that raspberries, especially in the South, have a shelf life of no more than two days.

“Rapid loss of color, or darkening of the skin, of raspberries and botrydis, a common disease of fruit are primary factors in reducing the value of the crop in the Southeast. Fungicides and cold storage have been the primary tools to fight this loss, but they aren’t the answer, Veazie contends.

“Using biotechnology to take better advantage of light and oxidation and other factors that contribute to the rapid breakdown of raspberries is the key to making this and other crops more valuable and more viable as a high value crop for rural economies of the state,” she concludes.

Allan Brown, an assistant professor at North Carolina State’s Plants for Human Health Institute, says making healthy crops like broccoli more desirable to consumers is likely to be driven by one factor — taste.

Broccoli is promising crop

“Broccoli is one of our most promising crops in terms of its value to human health. We are looking at a number of naturally occurring compounds in broccoli that we can alter to make it taste better,” he says.

Janet Reed, associate director of environmental science at Cotton Incorporated, told the audience about advances in developing edible cotton. Adding more value to cotton makes it more valuable to farmers and to the rural economy of North Carolina and other states, she stresses.

David Peele, president of Avoca Inc, shared the amazing development and growth of Clary sage. Extracts from this crop is used as a binder in the $10 billion fragrance industry.

Peele, who helped bring production of Clary sage to eastern North Carolina, says the demand for increasing acreage in Clary sage may not be significant enough to change the face of the rural economy, but it is a good example of how a specialized crop can change the economy of a small county, like Forsyth County, N.C.

SoyMeds is a North Carolina-based company that uses biotechnology to convert soybean seeds into a number of medical products. Ken Bost, Chief Scientific Officer for the company says their goal is to use technology to help save Americans from the high cost of healthcare proteins — a $200 billion per year industry.

Soybean seeds, Bost says, is an ideal source for biomeds because each seed contains approximately 40 percent protein. This provides for millions of doses per greenhouse acre and eliminates the need for long-term cold storage and purification of protein.

Medical products produced from soybean seed, he says, could cost less than a cent per dose to produce and could be an ideal green industry for any rural economy.

In addition to the statewide meetings, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center recently announced the formation of a 21-member advisory council, made up of farmers and agribusiness leaders to bring cellular science to the soil.

The Advisory Council connects farmers and crop specialists, corporate executives, researchers, economic development experts and policy professionals.

“We’re truly fortunate to have this level of leadership coming together to help guide the future of North Carolina’s $74-billion-a-year agricultural inheritance,” says Tolson.