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01/31/2004 - SIRTI Showcases Value-Added Agriculture

Value-added agriculture was the topic of SIRTI's January technology showcase. At this symposium, the keynote speaker was James Moseley, Deputy Secretary of the USDA, and papers were given by Dr. R. James Cook, Dr. Donald Bender, and Dr. Dennis Davis. The three research paper presenters were all Washington State University (WSU) agriculture scientists.

According to SIRTI Director Patrick Tam, the Technology Showcase was organized for several reasons. Foremost is to convince both the Inland Northwest and the world beyond that our region has a very strong, very innovative technology base. A second reason was to showcase the plight of current agribusiness. Today's agriculture industry is intensely competitive, and to stay competitive, it must find new uses for agriculture products, as well as new markets for traditional and new products.

Value added is not a new concept. In the case of agriculture, it means to add value through processing, packaging or modification of the raw material. "The concept is limited only by imagination," says Dr. Cook, WSU, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resources. According to Cook, the most exciting and promising method for adding value is "biopharming" --- the production of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines, in plants or animals. WSU's vehicle of choice is barley, and this means the bioengineering of barley at the molecular level. A gene, for example, that used to produce human insulin can be introduced into barley seed. The seed is planted as usual and the resulting crop also contains the human insulin gene. The harvested crop then goes to a bio-reactor where the insulin is extracted and purified.

According to Cook, this barley crop would be grown in isolation, sold to the contracting pharmaceutical agent, and never be introduced into the food supply. There could be as many biopharmed crops as there are genes for reproduction. The biopharmed barley would be far more valuable than the food crop.

Wheat Straw
WSU agriculture scientists are continuing to find an economically viable use for wheat straw --- to use it, not to burn it. They have developed an extruded natural fiber reinforced, thermoplastic composite material. Using wheat straw or wood reinforced with thermoplastic composites, the material is extruded and used for building materials. Current uses for these wood plastic composites include decking, siding, and marine applications. The material shows good profitability and good growth potential.

There is, however, a problem with using wheat straw, according to Dr. Bender, WSU Weyerhaeuser Distinguished Professor. Wheat straw has a waxy cuticle that doesn't bond well with thermoplastics. The waxy substance must be removed, usually by bio-treatment, before it can be used. This adds to the cost. Other challenges with wheat straw are no year around supply and lack of consistent quality. Still the prognosis is good, and research continues.

Crispy Puffed Lentil Snacks
Lentils are an important rotation crop in the Palouse. Lentils are not esteemed in the United States, and are grown more for their agronomic advantages rather than economic gains. A group of WSU students has set out to make the lentil more economically attractive as a food item by developing the "crispy puffed lentil snack."

As reported by Dr. Davis, Interim Director of the Bioengineering Program at WSU, students in a senior capstone course, under the lead of Dr. Juming Tang, have created a technology that uses raw lentils to create the new, extruded snack food. The lentils are ground and mixed with meal from apples for fiber and potatoes for starch. This is a wet mixture that then passes through an extruder that pressurizes and heats the lentil mixture. As the meal exits the extruder, the liquid in the meal flashes into the steam that puffs the meal. The end product forms pieces about the size of a peanut.

The lentil snack is a pleasant color and bland in flavor. This means it well lend itself to flavor additions that should please the consumer. The lentil snacks were a hit at the 2003 National Lentil festival.

The goal is to produce both a high value product that is salable in US markets, and new engineers in the food industry who are able to produce additional high value products that can succeed in the market place.

Billie Moreland
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