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Officials: Biotechnology can boost soybean
by Diana Mazzella (Staff Writer)
30-January-2010 Daily Advance

Soybeans continue to be one of North Carolina’s biggest exports, and with further advances in biotechnology the crop could become an even bigger force in the state’s economy.

That was one of the messages from last week’s annual N.C. Soybean Festival in Elizabeth City, the birthplace of soybean processing in America.

Nearly 400 local farmers and residents attended the event, held at the K.E. White Center.

Norris Tolson, president and CEO of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, was the keynote speaker for this year’s festival. He discussed the biotech center and the ways it’s marshalling agricultural resources to improve food and medicines and bring jobs to the state.

In the 25 years since former Gov. Jim Hunt founded the state-funded center in Raleigh, the Biotechnology Center has helped create 540 biotechnology businesses, Tolson said.

He said a biotech center-funded facility in Holly Springs, for example, is the only place in the world where the H1N1 vaccine is produced using cell cultures instead of egg cultures. The new procedure allows more doses of the vaccine to be produced at one time.

He said the center also helped develop drug delivery systems for chemotherapy that only target cancer cells, leaving healthy cells undamaged.

Tolson later said biotechnology techniques have already improved soybean yields, making the crop resistant to the weed-killer Round-up, for example.

But biotechnology isn’t just about increasing yields, Tolson said. It’s also about discovering new uses for crops.

For example, Tolson believes an industry in nutraceuticals — health remedies made from natural products — could be developed in the state, most likely in the west.

“We know that there’s certain plants that have strong medicinal uses,” he said. “It won’t be a huge industry, but it will be a nice industry.”

Gwyn Riddick, a vice president at the Biotechnology Center, said the center’s mission regarding crops is threefold: to help develop new types of crops, find new uses for traditional crops and create new processes for growing crops.

Riddick said the center also wants to work on measures that reduce the use of pesticides for pest control, increase disease prevention in farm animals and develop new products that contribute to better human health.

Riddick said the state has lost jobs but it hasn’t lost “a lot of smart, hard-working people.” It’s those people, he said, who will provide the innovation that leads to valuable research and the creation of new jobs.

Jim Dunphy, a soybean specialist and crop science researcher at N.C. State University, also believes biotechnology can be a “potentially tremendous tool” for the future of agriculture.

On the subject of soybeans, Dunphy said production continues to increase as farmers gain more experience with the crop. North Carolina growers in fact now devote nearly 1.6 million acres to soybeans, making the crop the biggest by acreage in the state. Locally, growers devoted 100,000 acres to soybean production last year.

Area growers also continue to have some of the state’s highest soybean yields. While the state average was 34 bushels an acre in 2009, the average yield in Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden and Currituck counties was between 38 and 46 bushels an acre.

The area’s top growers, by county, in 2009 include Ricky Stallings of Perquimans, who reported the highest yield, 83.2 bushels an acre; Charles Gray & Sons of Pasquotank, who reported a yield of 72.8 bushels an acre; and Morgan Farms of Currituck, who reported a yield of 61.4 bushels per acre.

Regionally, soybeans generated $50 million in farm income for area growers in 2009, as the crop was exported from the Port of Norfolk around the world. Destinations of locally grown soybeans included China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, Cooperative Extension officials said.

The Soybean Festival has been held in Elizabeth City for the past 28 years to celebrate the area’s historic role in processing soybeans and its continued investment in the crop.

Prior to the start of Thursday’s event, participants were able to tour exhibits from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service on how to cook with soybeans. Other exhibitors included agribusinesses and companies that cater to farm operations.

Contact Diana Mazzella at dmazzella@dailyadvance.com

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