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Bioscience Conference opens

Guests at the Bioscience Conference reception visit as they make their way around the table Thursday night at the Historic Dayton House in Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- As the population of the world continues to soar, there's one primary question on the mind of Robert Thurston.

How are we going to feed everybody?

Thurston, who has been in the seed business for more than 40 years, explained the feasibility of providing food for billions of people during his "Shaping the Future of Agriculture Using Biotechnology" presentation Thursday afternoon during the Regional Bioscience Conference.

The seventh annual event, sponsored by Southwest Initiative Foundation and hosted by Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp., continues today at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

A native of Worthington and a self-proclaimed "Nobles County farmboy," Thurston began his presentation with a video titled "Brazil: A Hungry Planet and Brazilian Agriculture." The video, which can be viewed at, included numerous statistics, including that in 1940, one Brazilian farmer produced enough food for 19 people -- and today, produces enough for 155 people.

The video also notes what Thurston called "the balancing act" between feeding the world and environmental conservation.

Another important anecdote: It says the world's appetite will double in the next 20 years, in conjunction with the expected growth in population.

"No one can deny the trend of staggering population growth and the amount of food it's going to take to feed that population," Thurston said. "There will be 3 billion more people on this planet in the next 40 years."

Thurston is president of Thurston Genetics, a division of BASF Plant Science that is based in Olivia. He also owns Thurston Inc., a seed corn brokerage firm also based in Olivia.

"About 12 years ago, BASF ... ventured into food," Thurston said. "They could see the vision that this was going to be a critical thing for our future. Right now there are about 700 employees in BASF plant science ... and if you project out to the next five years, there will be about 1,000 employees."

Thurston also told conference attendees that diets around the world are changing.

For instance, he said, "All of a sudden, China is saying this meat tastes pretty good," adding that "two new KFC locations are being built in China every day."

"How are we going to feed these people globally ... is also a Minnesota problem, a Midwest problem," Thurston said. "Just look at how much corn China has bought in the last 60 days. It's unbelievable."

When examining resources critical to agriculture, Thurston explained, there's little choice for companies such as BASF -- based in Germany --to put an increased focus on plant biotechnology.

"Land is our most basic resource, there's no doubt about it," he said, noting that productive agriculture land is disappearing, limited opportunity exists for increases and further adoption of land for agriculture may incur ecosystem costs. Land, however, isn't the most challenging resource -- that label belongs to water.

"Forty percent of the food supply globally comes from irrigated ground," Thurston said. "We only hope that our future production ... just maintains our (current) irrigation and uses it as sparingly as possible. Crops that need less water -- that's one of our goals."

The third, and most important, resource for the future is the plant.

"It's an engine, it's a factory, it's a system," Thurston stated.

BASF, for its part, is placing a significant focus on feed, and how it can make feed better for meat and milk. This is done through vigorous genetic resource, experimentation and testing, he said.

One way to improve upon plants is to engineer seeds with better components, such as improved oils and higher protein. Seeds such as drought hybrids also have the potential to make a major impact, according to Thurston.

A key to development of improved seeds is continued partnership between biotech companies. Thurston said the six biggest biotech companies "all kind of work together" to develop better plant products.

The presentation on plant biotechnology was one of several Thursday, the opening day of the two-day conference. Other programming, usually 30 to 40 minutes in length, included presentations on technology in the dairy industry, using animal tissues to save human lives, funding innovation and research, BioPharma Products of Worthington and others. A reception at Worthington's Historic Dayton House followed in the evening.

On the conference agenda for today are presentations by venture capitalist G. Steven Burrill and rural development expert Jack Schultz.

An 8 a.m. groundbreaking ceremony is also scheduled at Worthington's Biotechnology Advancement Center, and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar will give remarks at 12:15 p.m.

Projects created by the Worthington Middle School Science Club will be displayed from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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