Genetically engineered pigs resistant to deadly viruses could save swine producers worldwide billions of dollars a year and farm-based technology has the potential for even more benefits, a state legislative committee heard Monday during a hearing in Columbia.
In the pork research, conducted by a team that included University of Missouri scientists, the gene that produces an enzyme allowing several viruses to take hold was removed from the animals, said Associate Dean Shibu Jose of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
MU worked with Kansas State University and British livestock biotechnology company Genus PLC to develop the pigs. Genus is now seeking approval to market the pigs in the U.S. and China, according to Reuters.
The virus-resistant pigs were one example of the economic impact of MU’s agricultural research Jose offered Monday to the House Economic Development Committee during the hearing on the MU campus.
The main focus of testimony Monday was on the technology of farming and how that can be used to develop industries in the state. No one spoke against those technologies or any danger they may pose to consumers or farming sustainability.
Representatives of agricultural companies and research centers said collaboration between private companies and public researchers has been key to advancing agricultural technology in Missouri.
Another example of MU agricultural research making waves in the food industry, the plant-based protein producer Beyond Meat, started as an attempt to make a chicken-like substance out of soy protein in the research lab of MU food science professor Fu-hung Hsieh. The company now has a publicly-traded stock, a research lab in California and a production plant in Columbia.
MU set a goal of doubling the number of patent applications and approved patents coming from research in the college by 2025, said Jose. Researchers applied for an average of 43 patents and were issued an average of 15 each year from 2014-18, Jose said.
Going from proving a cool idea to bringing an invention to the marketplace is an expensive and complicated undertaking, which the university doesn’t have the resources for on its own. The university usually will license technology to a company, Jose said.
Along with collaborating on research, St. Louis Community College works with agricultural technology companies to create a pipeline of students with the skills the companies need, said Dr. Richard Norris, director of the college’s Center for Plant and Life Sciences.
The center’s labs at the Danforth Plant Science Center’s BRDG Park in Creve Coeur offer students practical experience with professional lab equipment.
“We teach this so hands-on, they literally know this stuff forwards and backwards,” said Hart Nelson, associate vice chancellor for workforce solutions at St. Louis Community College.
Students also work closely with agricultural technology companies, including several located in BRDG Park. Startup companies use the college’s teaching equipment — which can be both essential and unaffordable for agricultural technology startups, Norris said.
The college has secured grants to pay its students who work as interns for those startups, said Norris. New companies get competent lab technicians for free, and students get experience and build connections in the industry.
Many graduates of the two-year program are hired out of their internships and continue to work with those other companies in BRDG Park, he said.
Building a pipeline of students interested in going into agricultural technology is still a challenge, like it is for other scientific fields, Nelson said.
“Science is still scary for a lot of kids, and a lot of kids just aren’t pushed to go into science,” he said.
The centralization of agricultural technology companies in St. Louis could be part of the challenge, said state Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal. The area he represents is home to a BASF chemical plant and has more farming than the St. Louis area.
“For somebody to say, ‘We don’t have enough students' — we’ve got the students, they’re in the FFA chapters in upstate Missouri and all the other places in Missouri that don’t have access to this kind of capital,” Riggs said.
Janet Wilding, a planner working on the 39 North Agricultural Innovation District based around Monsanto/Bayer, BRDG and the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, said having incubators like in St. Louis County is key to getting startups off the ground.
They need office and lab space, which is more abundant in Creve Coeur than in Hannibal, she said.
Communication between agricultural communities and agricultural technology companies needs to improve, said Connie Bowen, program operator at the YieldLab, which funds agricultural technology startups.
FFA students are always excited to see presentations from agricultural technology startups, but there needs to be more communication to show them what opportunities there are, she said.