Wednesday, July 18, 2012

NCBiotech Launches Center to Commercialize New Crops

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has launched an initiative to help grow the state’s agricultural economy by creating more crop choices for North Carolina farmers.

Following months of discussions with partners statewide, NCBiotech has established the Biotechnology Crops Commercialization Center, targeting potentially valuable crops adapted to the state’s diverse soil, climate and agribusiness conditions.

Veteran ag biotech leader Alan Kriz, Ph.D., has joined NCBiotech’s AgBiotech Group as executive director of the crops commercialization center.

Kriz came to the Center after leading a team at Monsanto that maintained U.S. regulatory compliance for the company’s field trials. He has also worked for BASF Plant Science, Renessen, DEKALB Genetics and the University of Illinois.

“Alan brings valuable perspective and experience to our statewide ag biotech initiative,” said Gwyn Riddick, M.B.A., NCBiotech vice president of agricultural biotechnology.

“He’s a key contributor to our initiative promoting development of new or improved crops statewide that we believe can boost the ag economy from the current $70 billion to more than $100 billion by 2020.”
The new crops commercialization center’s initial focus will be to facilitate a startup project called the Swine Feed Project, aimed at reducing the import of swine feed from outside North Carolina.

Partners Back Initial Project

Through a grant-funded consortium for the project, the crops commercialization center is supporting research and a coordinated approach for North Carolina farmers to grow grain sorghum – a corn-like feed grain not typically grown within the state. 

It’s starting with a $150,000 two-year grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation and $100,000 each from the North Carolina Pork Council and Warsaw, N.C.-based Murphy-Brown, LLC, the livestock-production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

Murphy-Brown is the world’s largest pork producer, feeding some 17 million market hogs each year. Overall, the state’s animal industry, including poultry as well as hogs, uses about 300 million bushels of grain per year. But North Carolina farmers grow only about 80 million bushels a year. That means some 220 million bushels of grain must be shipped in each year from Midwestern states such as Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

“We need to reduce the calories coming into North Carolina by boat or train,” explained Terry Coffey, Ph.D., chief science & technology officer at Murphy-Brown. “Reducing our grain deficit requires a coordinated effort involving farmers, policy makers, a wide range of partners. We think this Swine Feed Project is an excellent opportunity to capitalize on the Biotech Center’s 28-year history of statewide relationship-building to enhance one of the state’s most important industries.”

The main limiter on grain production is the state’s sandy soils, which can’t hold the water needed for corn during dry years. But sorghum isn’t as thirsty as corn.

New Crops for Farmers

Murphy-Brown has agreed to buy the sorghum harvested by local farmers enrolling in the Swine Feed Project, providing a valuable incentive. Also, after farmers harvest the sorghum in the fall, they can plant a second crop, such as wheat, to overwinter on the land and harvest in the spring.
“This is a unique opportunity to implement meaningful steps toward making North Carolina’s pork industry more self-sustaining,” said Deborah Johnson, CEO of the Pork Council.

“The Golden LEAF Foundation is a strong proponent of efforts to support economic growth in our tobacco-dependent, economically distressed and rural communities, especially in the area of agriculture,” said Dan Gerlach, Golden LEAF President. “This project will help expand business opportunities and reduce costs for both NC farmers that grow crops and farmers that use crops for animal feed.”

Golden LEAF provides grants from tobacco settlement funds to help economically affected or tobacco-dependent regions of North Carolina.

Promise for the Future

“I’m delighted to bring more than two decades of commercial and academic agricultural experience to this organization,” said Kriz. 

“The tools of biotechnology have become integral to agriculture. They allow us to see markers that serve as ‘ID cards’ for selecting plants or animals ideal for breeding. We can use polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, technology to analyze genetic traits of interest. Biotech will help us continue to improve everything from corn to switchgrass. And, eventually, maybe we’ll develop even more productive North Carolina sorghum.”

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