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Commentary: As biotech grows, will ‘food divide’ expand?

By Amanda Wilson
For the Salisbury Post
I recently took the 16-minute, $3 train ride from Salisbury to nearby Kannapolis. A friend from Raleigh, also curious about the N.C. Research Campus, accompanied me. There, a quaint mill town of simple brick facades lined with modest trees seemed almost fragile next to the behemoth campus, the $1.5 billion brainchild of David H. Murdock. Though the landscape of the campus is still largely a vast, red plain of undeveloped earth, three buildings are nearly complete.
At lunchtime, we asked a man for advice about where to eat. The man, a former employee of Cannon Mills/Pillowtex, told us about Kannapolis history. When he started working at the mill in the early 1960s, pay was 85 cents an hour, and the mill was darkened by the blight of segregation, a patriarchal mill management, nepotism and little opportunity for advancement. Things got better, and by the early 1990s, workers made $15 an hour. The mill’s closing in 2003 hit the community hard, he said, but he had hope that the new campus would offer local folks the incentive to get an education and better themselves.
We asked if he had ever eaten at David Murdock’s restaurant Forty Six (named for the 46 chromosomes found in human DNA.) The restaurant is purported to be evidence of the N.C. Research Campus emphasis on healthy foods, and everywhere we went people told us about the alternative, organic restaurant Mr. Murdock, CEO of Dole Food Co., had brought to town. Our new friend said he had not been there.
“Mostly, folks eat fast food,” he said. When I saw the Forty Six menu, with lunch dishes from $17 to $28, I could understand why.
My friend and I ate at a hotdog stand the man recommended “for people like us,” but we went to Forty Six for dessert. In the highly-stylized restaurant, still thinking about the man, I felt slightly ashamed for ordering a $5 raspberry sorbet. More than just a privilege of a new creative class, the sorbet seemed a reminder of society’s lingering food divide. There were, however, brochures for the N.C. Research Campus Farmer’s Market and for a variety of classes open to the public ó part of a new renaissance that promises to raise the quality of life for Kannapolis citizens.
Those citizens enjoy the benefit of new public parks, access to classes, a farmers’ market, health studies and a revived public infrastructure. These developments are very good, but other North Carolina public resources may face a different fate.
In May, the Program Evaluation Division (PED) of the North Carolina General Assembly, in Report Number 2008-05-01, proposed the transfer of 18 Agricultural Research Stations dual-managed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, N.C. State and N.C. A&T universities to total university control, which would entail streamlining, spending cuts, the closure of seven stations, the possible sale of state forests and at least 54 state job terminations.
The Department of Agriculture, which has owned and managed the research facilities since 1912, adamantly opposes the recommendations. I got a distinct feeling of discomfort reading Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler’s letter of response, published in the report. It alleges that the transfer debate “has continued behind closed doors” ó strange, in a country where a large portion of the budget is spent exporting democracy (RTI-International, a tenant slated for the N.C. Research Campus, was contracted to work on democracy-building in Iraq, not without debacle: see Steve Fainaru’s Pulitzer prize-winning series from the Washington Post.)
The transfer, recommended in the PED report, could shift substantial state agricultural resources into research of the kind taking place at the N.C. Research Campus. The state bureaucracy is strapped for cash and burdened by budget shortfalls, so the case for shifting resources toward institutions that benefit from public-private management is strong: increased access to private funding, corporate grants and high-tech equipment. There is a general consensus among powerful state leaders that such transfers may be inevitable, and perhaps it is true that public-private partnerships offer an advantage in the global economy. There is talk of big projects, inconceivable advances and, most seductive, a wealth of new knowledge. But what if the results we race toward, under a market-driven, starry-eyed infatuation, like that SUV for sale in the front yard, become irrelevant with the next shift of the global marketplace?
Biofuels are a good example. The PED report cites a surge in funding for biofuels as an argument for continued R&D in North Carolina. However, that option already seems out-of-date considering that the current global food crisis is attributed, in part, to biofuels. Congress is already urging a shift away from biofuel production.
The N.C. Research Campus and the PED report herald the profit-potential of niche foods and specialty products. But who can buy them? Researchers who can afford $28 lunches? It is clearly all right for private corporations to produce expensive niche products, but the production of state-subsidized specialty foods seems increasingly negligent, especially in a time when the average consumer struggles with the cost of basic staples. Certainly, ambitious high-tech, market-based research has its merits, but if it comes at the risk of leaving local farmers and job-seekers vulnerable to the whims of venture capitalists and an unstable global marketplace, perhaps the risk merits more examination.
The N.C. Research Campus focus on bioactive food components is oriented toward the global marketplace. It is not unique to our state, nor to our country. I have seen similar projects around the world, and the Kannapolis project seems like the others: a highly-structured, highly-strategic competitive mobilization. At a university in Hungary, researchers are working to isolate resveratrol, the heart-healthy ingredient in red wine, for dietary supplements (while many medical patients struggle with a new $2 doctor’s visit fee). Eurofresh Farms, a greenhouse tomato corporation based in Willcox, Ariz. (and a competitor of Dole Food Co.), made record profits last year, due in part to a marketing campaign emphasizing the benefits of lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes. The marketing campaign was based on research from the University of Arizona at Tucson ó research partially funded by grants from Eurofresh Farms. And it touted the specialty food link: Eurofresh Farms tomatoes have been called “boutique tomatoes.”
Perhaps N.C. legislators will consider these examples, and who, exactly, they are benefiting, before transferring more state resources into research driven by a melange of public and private interests.
What will our agriculture, and our food culture, become if these interests shift in the favor of corporations that isolate resveratrol, enhance the concentration in super-grapes, patent them, brand them and sell them back to farmers and consumers at exorbitant markup ó or worse, sue them for mentioning the word “resveratrol?” In a world where agricultural giant Monsanto retains seed police, such a scenario could be possible.
At this moment, a brand new campus of Greek-revival buildings drawn from the visions of a California billionaire emerges like Atlantis from the red dirt of Kannapolis, promising a city of knowledge we never could have imagined. In the best visualization of this project, hope and expectation are distilled into their purest forms. This project is not the fiefdom of a patriarchal mill boss but a public collaboration that could benefit many diverse communities. But as long as access to healthy food remains a privilege exclusive to the economic elite, reminders of the old mill and its class structures will continue to haunt us.

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