Entrepreneurs gather at Rutgers to discuss ways to enhance agriculture
NEW BRUNSWICK — The fifth annual Entrepreneurship in Agriculture Day was held at Foran Hall on the Cook Campus of Rutgers University on Oct. 20.
Presenters included 11 undergraduate student interns who researched and did field work in areas of agriculture about which they were most passionate.
The half-day’s worth of presentations were prefaced by a talk from a Rutgers microbiologist, Dr. Eric Lam, who gave a talk on his research into duckweed as a potential high protein food source.
In introducing Lam, Dr. Morin said “one of our biggest challenges for us is to figure out how we’re going to produce enough food to feed all the people on the planet.
Right now over 815 million people go hungry and are food insecure, out of 7.5 billion.
That number is likely to increase unless we investigate other ways to produce more food.”
Dr. Lam pointed out he may be a professor and have a doctorate and long background in microbiology, “but I’m also still a student. I have no training as an entrepreneur, so I’m learning just as you are.”
Lam showed slides and talked about how the world population is expected to grow to 10 billion by the year 2050, and “that’s basically a huge number in 32 years, and these are conservative estimates.”
With 30 percent more people, the world will need at least 60 percent more productivity from current crops, he noted.
“Even though I’m a molecular biologist by training and we have many new approaches to increase crop productivity, this is still a very tall order, to produce new technology to produce that much more food from the arable land we have left,” he said.
“So I present duckweed. It’s something you can find all over the world,” he said.
Duckweed grows naturally in wastewater and storm water retention ponds and 37 different species of it can be found growing around the world. As a food choice, it has been used primarily in countries in Southeast Asia, but that will have to change in coming years.
“It’s limited in production only by space and it can be readily cultivated on municipal wastewater and it thrives on the organics that is in wastewater to create new proteins,” he said, noting by comparison with other major crops, the projected yield is seven to 10 times more than corn or soybeans in terms of total dried biomass.
“We’ve known for 50 years that duckweed has potential to be a very productive crop, because it grows naturally everywhere.”
Some strains of duckweed offer up between 20 and 30 percent in dried weight protein, “and by comparison soybeans have just about 16 percent.
That’s why the bulk of this planet’s proteins come from soybeans and that’s why soy prices are going up because there’s more demand for protein and to feed animals and fish.”
Lam brought some samples of hydroponically grown duckweed down to the lecture hall from his lab and offices elsewhere in Foran Hall to sample at lunch, with pizza and sandwiches.
He pointed out to everyone’s amusement, “the world’s largest hydroponic duckweed farm is right here in this building!”
“It’s basically a smaller leafy green and you can think of it as a small piece of salad growing on water,” he said. It can be grown hydroponically in the kitchen or out in the fields with large ponds of water.
Lam and his teams of graduate and undergraduate students, along with other duckweed researchers around the world, have discovered one hectare can produce 600 metric tons of duckweed per year, “so this is 50 times what we can get from corn, and there’s no genetic engineering that can match that.
It will literally change the way we think about food, and most of the corn we grow in this country is used to feed animals, not people.”
Lam pointed out that duckweed can be rinsed with a strainer and stored in a refrigerator for up to two months with no loss in nutritional value.
“Anytime you want some, you can just add it to your ramen,” he argued, “because ramen is nutrient deficient, and what is the most popular food in college? Ramen!”
Creating a new market for duckweed will not be trivial, Lam said, “because people really haven’t eaten this before.
“But if we use this as a food for fish and in aquaculture, we can help remove the costs for aquaculture also make your fish taste better.
“Trying to incorporate a new food is not easy, so since 2009 we’ve created an active community to incorporate the expertise of people from all over the world via social media and sharing of our ideas on an internet website,” he said.
Lam and grad students have also started a new graduate student organization to learn how to grow duckweed in a lab so that “they can then reach out to people who really need it, all over the world.”
“Duckweed offers so much possibility and so much room for creativity,” Lam said, adding, “this is not your grandfather’s farm.”
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