Iowa Staters talk biofuels, healthy oils and 'pharma crops' at AAAS meeting

February 16, 2008

AMES, Iowa - There's more to biofuels than the food vs. fuel debate and talk of the various technologies associated with biofuels production.

And so Steven Fales, a professor of agronomy and a member of the Science and Engineering Board of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute, organized and moderated a three-hour symposium on Friday, Feb. 15, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

The title of the discussion was, "Energy, Agriculture, and People: Global Implications for Science and Policy."

"We thought it would be appropriate to take a big picture view of issues regarding energy and agriculture that go beyond the science and technology," Fales said.

And so there were presentations about climate change, production of biofuel crops on marginal lands, the effects of biofuel production on the poor, the ethics of using agriculture for energy production and the politics associated with renewable energy.

Fales said 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.

Two other researchers with ties to Iowa State also made presentations during the AAAS annual meeting Feb. 14-18:

• Robert Wisner, a recently retired University Professor of agricultural economics, addressed a 90-minute symposium on Friday, Feb. 15, titled, "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.

• Linda Pollak, a research geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a collaborative associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State, 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. And so Pollak argued traditional plant breeding can still develop better crops for healthier foods.
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Iowa State University

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