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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

UNCP takes biotechnology message to area clergy

Mixing religion with science can be a volatile mix, especially when it comes to biotechnology.

UNCP hosted a biotechnology conference specifically for area church leaders on November 29. So, what happens when UNC Pembroke scientists invite local clergy in for coffee and conversation?

Brooks and Jones

Leslie Jones (right), RCC's BioAg Center,
and Rev. Dalton Brooks, retired UNCP physics professor


“I thought it was very informative,” said Rev. James Woods, bishop of the Holiness Methodist Church. “I’m excited about the future. It’s comforting to know how they are putting (science) together to feed us and provide jobs.”

Rev. Woods was one of about a dozen church leaders who attended the three-hour workshop at COMtech, an industry park that is at the heart of several biotechnology projects in Robeson County.

Did Rev. Woods have any issues with biotechnology?

“I have no qualms,” he said. “This is about plants and animals, not humans.”

UNCP, UNC Wilmington, Robeson Community College, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Syngenta, global biotech company with research facilities in the Research Triangle Park, spoke with church leaders on current applications of agricultural biotechnology.

“The church and academia have common concerns,” said Dr. Len Holmes, a UNCP chemistry professor who organized the event. “Like educators, churches have a mission of service - to promote health and the quality of life.”

“This is an outreach to leadership of our region,” Dr. Holmes said. “Agriculture is a long-standing way of life in our region, and biotechnology is enhancing agriculture now and in the future.”

The leaders of science and education are seeking partners and to increase understanding of what biotechnology really is doing in places like southeastern North Carolina.

UNC Wilmington scientists are working on a unique version of saltwater aquaculture on land, said Dr. Wade Wantanabe. UNCW is working on the production of flounder and sea bass.

“I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from hog farmers about production,” Dr. Wantanabe said. “Right now, the economics are not there. We need to increase the growth rates and reduce the cost of fingerlings.”

The Department of Agriculture is working with several biodiesel production projects. Biodiesel, said Dan Weathington, an agribusiness development specialist.

“Biodiesel is produced from byproducts and production crops like soybeans,” Weathington said. “We are working on five large production facilities currently.”
“ Biodiesel, when blended with diesel is clean burning and reduces our nation’s dependence on foreign oil,” he said. “It is a good use for used cooking oil and animal fat, and it would be a market for agricultural production.”

Biodiesel, too, is in its infancy as a commercial product of biotechnology.

Syngenta’s Dr. Bob Dietrich said “biotechnology is not a silver bullet; it is a tool.” Syngenta is working to produce transgenic crops to resist insects and disease, are drought tolerant, have increased nutritional value and are cheaper to produce for farmers.

“Plant biotechnology is using DNA to improve crops,” Dr. Dietrich said. “It’s about making farmers more efficient.”

RCC President Charles Chrestman said “there is nothing we have seen today that scares me in the least.”

“I commend you for taking a few minutes this morning to learn what we are doing in biotechnology,” Dr. Chrestman said.

“RCC’s BioAg Center was one of six in North Carolina funded by the Golden Leaf Foundation,” he said. “Our Associate of Science degree program in biotechnology has been approved, and the degree is transferable for students at universities.”

“Our new BioWorks program teaches skills needed by biotechnology companies so that our graduates may participate in this high-paying industry,” he added.

UNCP will accept students into its new biotechnology major this spring, and design work is underway for a research center at COMtech. Dr. Holmes wrapped up the program with this message.

“Southeastern North Carolina is poised to grow in a rapidly changing world, and we can do this while maintaining the quality of life that we have always enjoyed,” Dr. Holmes said. “One of the pieces of the puzzle that will help us grow is biotechnology.”

To learn more about biotechnology programs at UNCP, please contact Dr. Len Holmes at 910.521.6247 or email len.holmes@uncp.edu.

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