ISU Talks Biofuels, Healthy Oils and 'Pharma Crops'

Three Iowa State University specialists talk about hot ag topics at one of our nation's biggest science meetings.

Three researchers with ties to Iowa State University recently led or presented talks at a major science meeting that attracts as many as 10,000 participants every year. The three ISU specialists made their presentations during the 174th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, which was held Feb. 14-18 in Boston, Mass. The theme of this year's meeting is "Science and Technology from a Global Perspective." The three researchers are Steve Fales, an ISU professor of agronomy and a member of the Science and Engineering Board of ISU's Bioeconomy Institute; Bob Wisner, a recently retired ISU professor of ag economics; and Linda Pollak, a research geneticist for USDA and an associate professor of agronomy at ISU.

Major science meeting attracts 10,000 people

"The AAAS annual meeting has become the most important gathering of the year for the growing segment of scientists and engineers who seek to explore the intersections between disciplines and witness the broad influence of science and technology on society," says David Baltimore, president of AAAS. The AAAS annual meeting includes seminars, workshops and lectures, including the three presentations by ISU researchers.

• Fales organized and moderated a three-hour symposium titled "Energy, Agriculture and People: Global Implications for Science and Policy." Fales said the symposium was a lot more than the latest in the food vs. fuel debate or talk of the various technologies associated with the production of biofuels. "It was a big picture view of issues regarding energy and agriculture that go beyond science and technology," he says. There were presentations about climate change, production of biofuel crops on marginal lands, effects of biofuel production on the poor, the ethics of using agriculture for energy production and the politics associated with renewable energy. Fales says the idea was to mirror the global theme of the annual meeting and acknowledge that biorenewable issues extend beyond energy into many other concerns of society.

• Wisner addressed a 90-minute symposium on "Drugs in our Corn Flakes? Our Health and the Economic Risks of 'Pharma' and Industrial Crops." Wisner's talk addressed the economics of growing crops with medicinal traits engineered into them. Key economic issues include the risks of co-mingling medical drugs and industrial chemicals with the food supply and the alternatives for controlling that risk. But those aren't the only economic issues he identified. Others were determining the real and long-term costs and benefits of pharma crops, identifying who gains from the crops and learning whether producing medicines and chemicals in non-food crops is more economical and less risky than using food crops. Wisner also noted several instances when unapproved genetically modified crops were found in food supplies. In those instances, Wisner said there were major disruptions in grain export markets, price impacts and very high public and private costs to purge the grain from the food system.

• Pollak addressed a 90-minute symposium on Saturday, Feb. 16, titled, "Crops for Health: Improving the Health-Promoting Properties of Food." Pollak's message was that traditional plant breeding can be a tool to improve human health. Plant breeders, for example, have been able to reduce some of the problems with oils from soybeans, canola, sunflowers and corn. She said plant breeders have developed soybeans with lower levels of fatty acids to help reduce trans fats after processing. Breeders have also developed canola lines with safe levels of toxic erucic acid. And plant breeders have decreased saturated fats and increased monounsaturated fats in canola, sunflower and corn oils to reduce the risk of heart disease. Pollak argues that traditional plant breeding can still develop better crops for healthier foods.

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