Thursday, December 13, 2007
Salinas Valley lettuce could become much more than a salad staple, according to Dr. Henry Daniell, professor and trustee chair at the University of Central Florida. Daniell has produced insulin from genetically-modified lettuce, and the insulin capsules have treated diabetes in mice. If human trials are successful, Daniell’s method could save millions of diabetics from injecting insulin everyday and usher in a new and higher value use for Monterey County’s main crop.
“There is a lot of lettuce that needs to be grown,” Daniell told a Salinas crowd last month during an agricultural innovation conference. “This community has a great opportunity, moving from food to medicine.”
Salinas leaders say growing crops for alternative energy and pharmaceuticals is the future of local agriculture. But to support these entrepreneurial ventures and stay on the leading edge of the industry, city and county officials say the Salinas Valley needs an ag technology innovation center.
The center could include lab space, and house researchers and businesses that experiment with growing new crop varieties, testing for E. coli and producing biofuels. “Having an ag tech center would really be the catalyst to do so much more,” says Sonya Hammond, county director for University of California Cooperative Extension office in Salinas.
Hammond’s office assists local ag companies by researching insect management, plant diseases and weeds, among other things. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Station in Salinas also conducts research in areas such as organic crops, pesticides and biotechnology. But unlike a nonprofit or governmental organization, the technology center would be industry-driven.
“What we are really looking for is technological innovation enterprises that could not only sell to local companies, but they could sell to whoever,” Hammond says.
Jeffrey Weir, Salinas’ economic development director, says the tech center would help generate more wealth in the city’s ag-dominated job market. “It will be a place to test waters that we haven’t even thought about it,” Weir says. “We can train people living here today working in the field to get better paying jobs.”
The Nov. 14 ag summit at which Daniell spoke stirred up a lot of possibilities for the county, from diabetes-curing lettuce to vegetable oil-based lubricants. But whether new pharmaceutical or green companies will invest in Salinas remains to be seen.
For now the tech center is nothing more than a good idea. There is no funding for it, nor has any organization or board of directors stepped up to lead the effort. Plus, Salinas is bound to face opposition if it expands into genetically modified crops. GM crops, when planted, opponents say, can cross pollinate non-GM or organic crops and create pesticide-resistant weeds and insects. Critics also say the health effects of GM crops haven’t been studied enough.
~~~To date, the County has commissioned two studies related to an ag tech center, one on growing the biotech industry and the other on the feasibility of an agricultural knowledge center.
A 2002 study by Agland Investment Services says the county needs to develop new value-added products to compete with international competitors like China. The center would act as an “insurance policy for future profitability and growth,” the study says.
An earlier study by the Institute for Biotechnology Information, LLC, however, points to the county’s limitations. The 2000 report says the county’s lack of affordable housing and a trained workforce make attracting biotech-related enterprises challenging. Another weakness is the absence of a research university. For example, Hammond says a computer cluster has sprung up near Stanford University, and a medical biotechnology industry has grown out of UC San Francisco and UC San Diego campuses.
While Monterey County may not be a center of university ag research, local colleges are developing their ag-related academics. In collaboration with the Salinas Valley ag industry, Hartnell College is expanding its Agricultural Business and Technology Institute. In June 2008 the community college is expected to break ground on its east campus that will have 40,000 square feet of classrooms, labs and shops. Hartnell plans to offer new courses in areas such as food safety, pest management and post harvest technology.
CSUMB is also increasing its ag and science courses. It now offers an agribusiness management concentration and biology major.
Additionally, Hammond says the county’s marine research institutions are an asset because the basic science of marine biology is similar to plant biology. The biotech study recommends capitalizing on institutions such as Hopkins Marine Station and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories by cataloging technology and licensable research and supporting entrepreneurial researchers.
Mayor Dennis Donohue says he isn’t going to wait for a tech center to welcome the new economy. He says he will reach out to tech businesses in Silicon Valley to see if they will set up shop in Salinas, and he says he is trying to attract a major university like UC Santa Cruz to have an ag research presence in Salinas. “We leverage our ag industry, so besides being the world’s biggest fresh garden, we become the world’s biggest fresh laboratory,” he says.