“The juncture of biotechnology and agriculture is poised to be ever stronger in North Carolina, and can yield varied new outcomes.” – Task force co-chair Steven Burke.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — North Carolina, with a growing biotechnology sector that employs more than 50,000 people and an agriculture industry that produces $8.7 billion a year in products, is looking for ways to take better economic advantage of both sectors.

A steering committee of 34 people from academia, politics, and industry gathered at the state’s on Monday to formally kick off a project charged with creating a convergence plan.

The co-chair of the initiative is four-time Gov. Jim Hunt, a longtime advocate of high-tech as a means of transitioning the state’s economy from tobacco, furniture, textiles and manufacturing to a more modern mix.

Dr. Mike Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University, likes the idea of the “Growing North Carolina’s AgBiotech Landscape” project. However, he warned that the challenge won’t be easy to meet.

“I told them that the combination of the two makes sense because we have a strong footing in both,” said Walden, who was asked to address the group. “It makes sense to be opportunistic and to collaborate on areas of mutual benefit, such as in nutrition, alternative energy and drought-resistance crops.

“I also said that we are not the only ones who are trying to do this. We have a good start, but other states are trying to do the same thing.”

Walden, who recently published a book about the state’s economic transition (“North Carolina in the Connected Age,” UNC Press), warned the group as well that the current recession is likely to mean funding for any new initiatives would be tight.

“I am optimistic for the long term,” he said, “but I am cautious for the short term.”

Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue was among those who attended Monday’s first session. She already has been pressed by some state biotech corporate executives to seek ways to create capital for funding drug startup firms who are having tough times securing financing for product research and development.

The committee has set a goal of delivering a plan to the General Assembly in the spring.

Steven Burke, senior vice president for corporate affairs at the Biotech Center and Hunt’s co-chair, told Local Tech Wire that the project has many backers. Among its chief proponents is the Biotech Center, which is state-funded.

“The Biotechnology Center has both a mandate and a responsibility to continually look at the unfolding and development of biotechnology sectors,” he said. “Among them clearly is agriculture.

“The juncture of biotechnology and agriculture is poised to be ever stronger in North Carolina and can yield varied new outcomes: for biofuels, for value-added crops, for animals and broad acreage row crops with new traits, for new capabilities to deal with changing land and changing climate.”

Burke noted the state has also funded projects, such as a Biofuels Center, that have ties to both biotech and agriculture.

The essential question the group wants to answer is: “How can North Carolina in coming decades gain from thoughtful, appropriate, and wide application of biotechnology to our agricultural economy, future and landscape?”

The committee, which will soon reach out to gather feedback from other people across the state through several working groups, is, in Burke’s view, an unprecedented step for North Carolina.

“Bringing multi-party, imaginative, long-term thinking about agricultural biotechnology to state policy has never been done before,” he said.

Given his background, Hunt also was a logical choice to help spearhead the effort, Burke noted.

“Governor Hunt established the Biotechnology Center in 1984, is a farmer still, and has long been a biotechnology leader and thinker,” Burke explained. “He and I and the Center have worked together on many other projects over the years.”

Members of the committee were asked to serve after Burke and the Biotech Center staff mulled creation of the project and who should be involved.

For the time being, however, the project has no “wish list” or funding goals in mind, Burke added.

“A document – a combination of plan, report, and road map – will be gained” in the first stage, he said. “Until then, we have no idea what will be suggested as needs, strategies or ideas. The project has no ordained expectation of funding or any other outcomes. The 100-plus smart North Carolinians will creatively think, and then we’ll know. “

The working groups will be selected over the next few weeks. The groups will focus on:

  • crops, trees and biomass
  • farming and rural advantage
  • animals
  • aquaculture and marine
  • niche, specialty and value added crops
  • issues, policies and implications