Biotechnology Round Table March 2011

North Carolina’s agricultural biotechnology industry seeks solutions for feeding the world and slaking its thirst for energy.

Agricultural biotechnology is an important piece of North Carolina’s economy, with more than 75 companies leveraging the state’s expertise in agriculture and growing biotechnology base. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center, based in Research Triangle Park, has provided $13.3 million to support agricultural biotechnology projects, which promise to increase production, make food more nutritious and open doors to new plant-based medicines, fuels and other sustainable products. Discussing industry trends and challenges at a recent round table were Doug Drabble, director of BioNetwork life science initiatives for the North Carolina Community College System in Raleigh; Michael Luther, president of the David H. Murdock Research Institute in Kannapolis; Adam Monroe, president of Novozymes North America Inc. in Franklinton; Gwyn Riddick, vice president of agricultural biotechnology for the Biotechnology Center; Bijay Singh, Technology Center leader for BASF Plant Science in Research Triangle Park; Norris Tolson, president and chief executive of the Biotechnology Center; and Simon Warner, director of technology evaluation for Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. in Research Triangle Park. Business North Carolina Publisher Ben Kinney moderated the round table, held at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. The Biotechnology Center was the lead sponsor of the event, co-sponsored by Novozymes, the state community college system, BASF and Syngenta. Following is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.

What does the agricultural biotechnology industry look like in North Carolina today?

Riddick: Let me start by just talking about agriculture in North Carolina. Agriculture is still North Carolina’s largest industry, a $74 million piece of the economy. It’s pretty clear to those of us who have been around agriculture that there is still enormous potential in front of us. Agriculture represents both a food supply and an energy supply, or at least a raw material for energy. Biotechnology produces bigger, better nutrition for the world’s population, enabling us to produce new types of crops and find new uses for existing crops. We can use crops to actually grow medicine and to start producing industrial compounds that in the past have been petroleum-based. Having a plant-based, bio-based economy can help us to be much more sustainable.

Monroe: As the world’s population grows and as the economy grows, it’s going to place a tremendous amount of pressure on commodities of all sorts. The efficiency with which we use those commodities is going to be really important. The U.S. has the most efficient, productive agriculture in the world. It also happens to have the largest biotech muscle in the world, with 70% of the world’s biotech research anchored in the U.S. When you marry the two, what you can extract from agriculture now is going to be so, so important.

Can you give an example?

Monroe: The food is obviously very important, but the waste elements of the crop and what you do with all that cargo is going to present really tremendous opportunities for the biotech world. You can turn it into materials, you can turn it into fuels, you can turn it into a heck of a lot of things. You want to take all of that biotech know-how and leverage it into that ag space. Now we understand better that microorganisms, for instance, play a huge role in the soil and in the growth of a plant.

What kind of impact are North Carolina agricultural biotechnology companies making globally?

Singh: I think one of the things we have seen is that as the economy grows globally there is an increased demand for the protein-based diet, compared to the starch-based diet, just because of improvements in the population’s economic status. With the protein-based diet, you need more energy to go into the production of proteins, and you need a lot more food production that goes into feeding chickens, cattle and so forth. The land mass is the same. The amount of water is the same. So how can we increase the production of these crops for the same land mass? As we hear all the time, there is more disease pressure and insect pressure with intensive farming.

Trying to produce these crops through biotechnology means we look at how we can produce things that can grow, and produce high amounts of these products, under these pressures. That is the theory of BASF’s involvement. We try to tackle it not only from the ag-chemicals point of view but by using biotechnology. We have already produced a number of different crops and other products that are coming on the market in the coming years and will help us serve the growing needs of the world’s population.

Warner: Syngenta plays in a number of fields. We sell crop-protection chemistry, which increases yields. That’s the technology probably of the 1940s and ’50s. We also sell seeds and a lot of crops grown in North Carolina today. Biotechnology and accelerated breeding programs are new areas. Our company has a product coming on the market called Agrisure Artesian. It’s a more drought-tolerant corn product generated not through genetic modification but through conventional breeding. It was generated by applying high technology in the form of genetic markers to accelerate the breeding process. In addition to that, there are other traits which are much trickier to put into place, things like drought-tolerant resistance to insects and also resistance to various herbicides, which help weed-management programs.

"You want to take all of that biotech know-how and leverage it into that ag space."

How common is genetic modification?

Warner: Most of the corn and soy grown today in the U.S. is genetically modified. The U.S. is leading in that area. However, other countries are catching up. Brazil is a country to watch. The smarter these countries get — and the more we can help them — the better, because what’s good for North Carolina is good for the U.S. and good for the rest of the world.

What kind of agricultural biotechnology companies are springing up across the state?

Drabble: We have a new medical company, Medicago, coming to Research Triangle Park. They’re a perfect example of growing a drug product, a flu vaccine, with a plant. The real interesting thing there is that it’s growing in a tobacco plant. So you’re taking expertise in North Carolina of growing tobacco and putting a more advanced technology or spin onto it. The pure agricultural areas are benefiting from these companies’ research, getting better crop yield and understanding what they can do with their biomass afterward. Those kinds of companies are sprouting up all around the state. We’ve got a biomass company opening up in Hertford County and one in the Sandhills area. We have biodiesel companies popping up all over the place. So it’s not only agricultural companies, but companies that are going to use agricultural products for something different than food.

How competitive is North Carolina in attracting and retaining major ag-biotech companies?

Warner: I worked in San Diego, but North Carolina is far better because you have Bayer, BASF, Syngenta — three of the main players. We’re just missing two Ds, Dow and DuPont. The cluster of ag-biotech beats San Francisco, San Diego, Houston and Boston.

Singh: When BASF decided to be run by the biotechnology management team, we were to explore all different areas. And we already had a presence in New Jersey in very nice facilities. But we ultimately decided to move into North Carolina because of the university system, the Research Triangle Park, the presence of different ag-biotech companies, the availability of employees who can be readily hired, all these things. But one piece that I didn’t know, because I moved from Princeton, was about the great weather in North Carolina.

Luther: There’s also a diversity of farms in North Carolina. It gives you not just the lab and the technology, but it also gives you the ability to go out there and test so you can quickly move from the bench to the field.

Riddick: As these companies look at expanding, one of the big things they look at is the educational asset you have for their workforce — things like incumbent-worker training through the community college system and the ongoing custom-designed courses they do. North Carolina is really unique in having a 58-campus community college system.

How is the N.C. Community College System addressing the industry’s workforce needs?

Drabble: On the agricultural side, we’re looking at the regulatory components that we already have in place for other industries but trying to pull them together for the ag and food components. We started in 2009 putting together an analytical lab initially set up for pharmaceutical biotech. We have broadened that into chemistry, food, clinical, cosmetics and tobacco. We’re starting to get a lot of requests from food companies, and are working with our ag-bio sector in Lumberton to start doing some of the agri- cultural analytical work as well. But one of the key things is that if you guys need it, you ask us for it, and we’ll put it in place. That’s the bottom line. We have the ability to either modify the current programs or develop brand-new ones specifically for your industry. A year and a half ago, we had a request from a company that needed their annual training done by the end of the year. They asked us on Nov. 27. They have 594 employees, and we trained them all in nine days.

Tolson: What’s unique about North Carolina worker-training programs is that while it is delivered by the community college system, the concepts are developed by the business community. They literally lead the worker-training councils of the state of North Carolina right now. North Carolina is a leader in ag-biotech primarily because of these very visionary efforts.

How important is North Carolina’s workforce training to the health of the industry?

Monroe: I think it’s not only key, but it’s very unique. I’ve spent a lot of time going around the country looking at new locations, and of course you run into good venues where you can have development and worker training and those kinds of things. But I’ll tell you that North Carolina has far and away the best combination of business, universities, community colleges and government. The way they work in partnership is really unique, and it’s powerful. I think the results speak for themselves.

Tolson: I think the interesting thing about the training is it is not cookie-cutter. Let’s say I need this special kind of training that favors my company. Bijay comes in and says, “I need a different kind for BASF.” You need a different kind for Syngenta, and these guys custom-make it. That’s been our hallmark of success in the community colleges.

Warner: Also, the biotech industry is very regulated, and those regulations are just getting tougher and tougher. So the sooner you get it in our future employees’ mind-set that this is the world they’ll be entering, the better.

"We have biodiesel companies popping up all over the place."

How can you attract young people to careers in agricultural biotechnology?

Tolson: One of the things that agriculture suffered from over the years is it has no luster to it as a career. It’s not a sexy place to be. Now, all of a sudden you hear these industry guys talk about what they do. The career opportunities for young people in agriculture are phenomenal. There are things out there on the horizon for young people who are interested in science. Agriculture is no longer only plows and tractors. There are so many other things that young people can get involved with around agricultural science and food production and food safety.

Riddick: At the Biotechnology Center we have an undergraduate research program where you get young people to come in through a sponsored fellowship with various companies. The Kenan Fellows Program at N.C. State University supports that as well. Students can go into a company for X number of weeks, learn how that company works and see the profession. There’s another program we’re working on with some of the companies here at the table called Scientists in the Classroom. Your company brings in a couple of scientists through the academic year to not only work with the teacher but also to explain to students what their career involves and what it looks like. It really works. The students see this and they say, “That’s what I want to do, that’s what I want to go into.”

What do those young scientists bring to the table?

Monroe: I think that in many ways the future of this industry and opportunity is anchored in young people. We’ve hired a lot of young scientists in the last 18 to 24 months. Their look at the world is a much more sustainable one, to be quite honest, than I had when I got out of college. We have an opportunity to leverage these young scientists and make agriculture a sustainable and attractive business. We can already tell there’s going to be a ton of technology developments that are going to push the front on the regulatory side. Why not go out there and identify those things on the front end and start to work together as to how it could work, versus being in a reactive mode? That’s usually where a lot of the cost comes in, where somebody says, “Well, I’ve never heard this. Let me put you on hold for the next six months while I understand it.”

Luther: When I was at N.C. State as an undergrad, I was in a co-op program where you go work a semester in industry. That’s why I do what I do. We’re trying to do that even here on the campus because a huge percentage go to law school or go to medical school because they don’t have a chance to work with the faculty on the campus. So we’re trying to expose them to different career opportunities where, as a chemistry major or as a biology major, they can do the very things that can have the same amount of impact on the world.

Warner: I came from a farmer background, so that resonates with me. I think the key is that you make those links between industry and students — actually it doesn’t really matter what industry — and you get them started thinking about what the world’s needs are and what the scientific and technical advances are. Then the student can figure out themselves, “Do I need to be a farmer or do I become an ag scientist?” The most impactful thing I remember after high school was when someone came and said, “This is how the world progressed for me when I was your age.” I wanted to connect to find out a little bit more about that program.

In what other ways does the state support development of the agricultural biotechnology industry?

Tolson: North Carolina historically has put together maybe the best collaborative model for economic development that I know, and I’ve looked at almost all of them worldwide. What we’ve done very successfully is bring together government policymakers, the academics who train or do research and development and the business community. They sit at the table to make decisions that impact not only their business but North Carolina business as a whole. That’s pretty unique. From the ag-biotech standpoint, all of those attributes have been here for a long time, but we’ve never really put any emphasis on it in North Carolina. In the last three or four years, policymakers have said to us at the Biotech Center, “Why aren’t you guys pushing ag-biotech?” What the ag-biotech companies said is, “We’re kind of doing our thing in our own silos.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a common platform where we can come around the table and talk about common issues? And that has started to happen.

What kind of agricultural biotechnology advances are coming out of North Carolina?

Luther: If you’re a BASF or a Monsanto or Syngenta, we just call it biotechnology. We’ve gone from the world of serendipity around crop breeding and developing traits to actually doing it on the molecular level. Those traits have moved from productivity to the point where now we’ve started thinking about bioactives, or how it affects food. So I think it’s a real convergence of different areas of technology. It’s not just biotechnology, it’s not just agricultural, but it’s life sciences in general. And information technology is going to be a major player in how we begin to define the next generation of products and how we bring this together.

Drabble: There are a couple of companies here in North Carolina looking at preserving or increasing the longevity of the produced product. One company I talked to yesterday is looking at putting a life span of a year on a ripened product. So you limit or you’re eliminating the waste-product issue, or you eliminate the need to transport a product before it becomes wasted.

Monroe: For a company like Syngenta or BASF, whether you’re talking bread or beer or fruits or any of those things, it’s the biotechnology of making them last longer or to keep bread on the shelf longer or whatever. Often biotechnology is something that can provide a solution. It is a full chain of those carbon sources from agriculture. Luther: Your supply chain changes because now, if it sits there for four days, we just throw it away. Today, if we put that waste in some sort of biomass, it allows us to incur something that could be a biofuel or be turned into something that could go back into the field to help increase productivity.

Where is the agricultural biotechnology sector headed?

Riddick: The first wave was generally where you’re looking at traits of seeds that go into corn and soybeans, cotton and four or five other products. The idea there was to improve the agronomy so that you can get bigger and better yields. Now we’re starting to talk about the second wave of biotechnology, which is going to be the output traits of the organisms as well as the seeds. We’re looking now at benefits to all humankind through medicine and through new types of food. Now we’re going to be able to identify the genetic codes of the different types of bacteria that cause illness and diagnose them very quickly so we can help prevent them at the source. And then there’s even going to be a third wave, which is getting into the industrial compounds that plants can produce, as well as medicines and various nutritional compounds. We’ve got a long way to go yet. That’s probably about 20% of where biotech is going to go for our future.

Luther: As we start to think about food and we select our traits to actually increase entities like Vitamin D, at what point does the FDA start saying this is no longer a food? It falls into a functional food or ethical food, and how do you balance that? I guess the Institute of Medicine is spending a lot of time talking about what is nutrition and redefining nutrition, in part because the FDA is so focused on food safety. They have said that if you increase the traits in broccoli that we know improve its health value, and if you eat too much broccoli, do you end up causing an adverse drug reaction? Here’s a real opportunity for us in North Carolina because we do have such a strong biopharmaceutical industry base.

Tolson: It’s a really exciting time to be in the agricultural world because there’s so much new going on and there’s so much activity and emphasis on it. The population in general is refocusing on good food and healthy eating and quality of life. The opportunities in this game are just enormous.

"I think it’s a real convergence of different areas of technology."

What are some of the challenges the industry will have to overcome?

Warner: The biotech industry is even more regulated than the pharmaceutical institute industry. Think about the mass application of crop-protection chemistry and the need to ensure the safety of our customers, the growers and everybody that handles that material. Those standards are really high. The technology that the industry is still using is really conventional breeding. And you say, “Well, surely those are genetically modified traits that benefit those crops.” Absolutely, the answer is yes. However, the cost of doing all the studies and making sure that you’ve got the approval for the food, and when necessary EPA and FDA approval, is actually higher. Most companies hold that figure close to their chest, but you’ll see it runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Investments that companies need to make to get over that regulatory hurdle also kind of prohibit the rapid deployment to bring forth beneficial technologies in growing crops.

Is there any chance that will change?

Warner: My hope is that through time, as the companies reprove themselves in their growing of crops and get to establish the right relationships globally and with the regulatory organizations, then those regulations will actually become easier and cheaper. When that happens, that’s when you’ll start to see biotech used more generally and across different crops.

Monroe: We’re going to have to do more education and understanding around things like genetic modification because we don’t have an option to stick our head in the sand. Somehow or another, technology and the public and the government has to work together to extract all the good things we can out of that industry and do it in a way that is sustainable in the long term.

Singh: The other thing is that if we don’t participate and if we don’t take a lead on it, somebody else will. With private production and all those things, we’ll pay a much higher price eventually because we are not the first ones.

What’s the end game when it comes to ag-biotech research?

Tolson: All of this stuff that we’re trying to do around ag-biotech is important because it does get down to basic security and survival. Will you have enough food? Will you have a decent environment? Will you have enough water? Will you be able to grow crops or grow plants and animals? Will you be able to do all this stuff in an environment where you can live successfully with those who don’t grow it? We’re very sensitive about the fact that we need to educate the consuming public and the people who grow it at the same time and say, “Hey, you can live in the same environment.” We are in the same bag, so to speak, around this issue of healthy environment, good quality food, good quantity of food. One of the comments we’ve heard a lot since we’ve been in this business is that we need to increase food supply by 100% within the next 50 years. Even then part of the world population will not be well-nourished. Now that’s a staggering statement.

Luther: I personally feel there are still huge gaps scientifically, and there’s a lot of pop in some of it, especially when it comes to the food-nutrition side of agriculture. When we’re talking about local sustainability with food, we’ve got to be careful to make sure we get the right messages there, because not every environment can support growing everything. So it is a real opportunity for everything from how as a farmer today you get technologies to how you apply it in the field. The R&D is very different and is where those rules converge.

Any final thoughts?

Luther: I think sometimes it’s just about getting the farmer in the classroom. Gwyn and I went down to the experimental station near Salisbury and met a guy there named Joe Hampton. I would put Joe in front of a molecular biology class. He wowed me. I want to just go hang around this guy because Joe is a farmer’s farmer.

Joe is a world-class Angus cattle breeder, and he was telling me about this program he’s done around chickens. He says that as the eggs are incubated, we turn the temperature up about a half to a full degree for one or two minutes. Then we turn it back down, and then right before they hatch we do it again. And what we find is that more of the chickens are male table roosters — more roosters than hens — and that the amount of breast meat per chicken is higher.

So of course, the scientist in me goes, “Well, how does that happen?” And Joe is like, “Beats me.” And I’m thinking, we should get an N.C. Biotechnology Center grant to help Joe study that, because I’m sure there’s some heavy genetic phenomena that occurs very early on that leads to that. You’ve got to understand that science so you can robustly and reproducibly do that again and again.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Business North Carolina magazine.