Students at N.C. State University study plant sciences in lab environments to create heartier and higher-yielding strains.
Photo by Roger W. Winstead/N.C. State University
Appeared as part of the Sponsored Section Cash Crop in the March 2018 issue.
By Teri Saylor
North Carolina is banking on two new agribusiness initiatives that are poised to grow jobs, create new markets for farmers and bring a level of manufacturing to the state that hasn’t been seen in decades.
The Plant Sciences Initiative, planned for construction on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, and the Food Processing and Innovation Center, headquartered at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, are primed and ready to feed North Carolina’s economy to the tune of $10 billion over the next two years.
“Our agribusiness industry sits at $84 billion today, and I believe we can hit our goal of reaching $100 billion by 2020,” says N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
The Food Processing Innovation Center will be a big part of this effort, with the Plant Sciences Initiative working in tandem to develop advanced measures that will improve crop yields, introduce new plant varieties and reduce feed costs for farm animals.
“This is all about the future of agriculture and agribusiness in North Carolina,” Troxler says. “We have great people and great farmers, and I have no doubt we can be a world leader in plant sciences.”
Richard Linton, dean of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has embraced the challenge of leading university efforts in helping North Carolina by driving job creation and making agriculture the state’s top economic sector. He’s uniquely qualified for the role. Linton, a nationally recognized food-safety authority, was a professor and chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University before coming to North Carolina.
“I saw how to grow this sector in two pieces, through plant sciences and food manufacturing,” he says. “North Carolina has a very diverse agriculture economy, with more than 70 commodity crops. It is the third most diverse state in the nation in plant varieties. We are also very diverse in soils and climates from the mountains to the Piedmont to the coast.”
The state’s environmental diversity is perfect for doing research by combining various soil types with climate variations to mimic other agriculture-rich areas across the country. This research will enable growers to develop new plant varieties and create better quality and better yield.
North Carolina also is unique in that N.C. State has 18 agricultural research stations around the state to take advantage of this diversity.
“No one else in the country has all of this,” Linton says. “Add in [Research Triangle Park], UNC [Chapel Hill] and Duke University, all located 20 minutes apart — we should be a world leader in plant sciences.”
Enter Stephen Briggs, entomologist, agricultural biotechnology business professional and commodity leader, who was most recently senior vice president of agronomy and corporate marketing at South Dakota Wheat Growers, a $1.3 billion agriculture cooperative. Briggs signed on as the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative launch director last August to transform the state’s big ideas into reality.
“I believe we can make this initiative into the Silicon Valley of plant sciences and solve the grand agricultural challenges for future generations in North Carolina,” he says.
In 2014, the state commissioned an economic feasibility study to determine how a plant-sciences research initiative and a food-processing innovation center might create a manufacturing renaissance. By transforming underused manufacturing capacity due to the decline of the textile, furniture and tobacco industries, the state could become a force to strengthen a new industrial sector — “namely the value-added food manufacturing sector,” the report stated.
These initiatives are predicted to bolster the state’s economy to the tune of $10 billion and 38,000 jobs. But they also could help on a grander scale by filling in nutritional gaps as the world’s population increases while natural resources decline. The study pointed to a projection by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs that predicts the global population, at 7 billion in 2012, will grow to 9.6 billion by 2050. And while the demand for food continues to increase, tension is rising as food producers are experiencing greater competition for land, water and energy, according to the report.
“Basically, our big mission is to solve the grand challenge of agriculture and to say that in 30 to 35 years, we are going to have to double our food supply that we grow on this earth to feed the people,” Briggs says.
Geoffrey Bock, project manager for the Plant Sciences Initiative, views the prospects as enormous. “The coalescence of the people who are behind this — from the university at the state level to the farmers across all 100 counties in North Carolina — the depth and breadth of this is unprecedented from anything I have seen in my career.”
The university is preparing to break ground on the 185,000-square-foot building in 2019 and plans to open its doors in 2021. The building will be designed for multidisciplinary research and collaboration.
Research will not be limited to plants for human consumption. The Plant Sciences Initiative also will conduct research on crops for animal feed, forestry, turf and ornamental vegetation, Briggs says.
The building, which will cost $160.2 million, is about 90% funded, according to Briggs. He predicts the building’s output will be important and far-reaching.
“The cutting-edge research, the great ideas, the new spinoff companies this new research will create — it’s not just about the building, which will be grand, but what is produced in the building, like solutions that will set it apart from all the other research facilities in the country,” he says.
Across the state, on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, Mario Ferruzzi is leading the charge in developing the Food Processing and Innovation Center, a state-of-the-art facility poised to revolutionize food processing and manufacturing in North Carolina.
The Food Processing and Innovation Center is a partnership among the N.C. Department of Agriculture, N.C. State University, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and the North Carolina Research Campus.
Ferruzzi, who grew up in Carteret County, holds master’s and doctorate degrees in food science and nutrition. Before returning to North Carolina in 2016, he spent 12 years as a professor and researcher at Purdue University in Indiana. He is recognized as an international expert in analytical chemistry and its applications in food and nutrition.
The program is on a fast track and is expected to open this fall.
The FPIC will focus on plant-based food, with the idea of spurring innovation, while at the same time growing and supporting entrepreneurial efforts in the state related to developing new products and commercializing them, according
Attracting food manufacturers to North Carolina is near the top of the state’s wish list.
“In North Carolina, we are good at producing ingredients, but they have historically been sent elsewhere to be manufactured into food. We know the value lies in the finished product and not the ingredients. We know traditional manufacturing in North Carolina has suffered, so we were tasked with adapting to food manufacturing and we believe it will be a good transition,” Linton says.
“The pieces are already starting to fall into place,” he adds. “The EDPNC is bringing industry to the table, the Department of Agriculture is handling the marketing piece, and N.C. State University has the research and development piece.”
Christopher Chung, executive director of the North Carolina Economic Development Partnership, knows about the food agriculture industry. He worked in that industry in Columbus, Ohio.
“I thought if we could marry agriculture production with manufacturing, our state would be attractive to food-processing companies,” he says. “North Carolina has attractive wages, tax rates and cost of living. The food industry is looking for ways to innovate, and we can help manufacturing drive more of that innovation. The Food Processing and Innovation Center is another arrow in our quiver.”
Last year, the EDPNC created a food-manufacturing task force and hired Laura Lee to lead recruiting efforts. She is already putting projects in the pipeline, according to Chung.
“It won’t happen overnight, but with dedication, we will keep doing what we need to do to keep the pipeline full, and we’re hoping to be able to make some announcements this year,” Chung says.
Troxler believes the state will start seeing results in a year or two.
“Companies are already taking notice, and we hope they will bring jobs to rural areas that are close to agribusiness centers,” he says. “The Plant Sciences Initiative and the Food Processing and Innovation Center are unique. No other state will have anything like this.”
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