Obama appointee and GC alumnus speaks on biotechnology

Roger Beachy, Ph.D., spoke to students, faculty and alumni Saturday afternoon over homecoming weekend with a new, Obama-appointed title. Beachy, a 1966 Goshen College alumnus, is the new director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture and has done significant research in biotechnology throughout his career.

Beachy began his lecture by recalling his time at GC. “I remember when you’re a freshman or sophomore, thinking, ‘How can I make a difference?’” Despite his admitted C in microbiology and worries about his career as an undergraduate, Beachy has now focused his study and research on biotechnology and agricultural practices from an economic and environmental point of view.

Beachy is the founding president of the Donald Dansforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, received the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 2001, is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and has been recognized numerous times for his advances in plant virology and biotechnology. He has been working for the government since 2009.

In his lecture Saturday, Beachy outlined a number of United States Department of Agriculture strategic goals and highlighted the need for food security worldwide.

“This is the first time food security has shown up (in NIFA research objectives),” said Beachy. He noted that food production must double by 2025 to meet demands; in 2009 there were 930 million undernourished people in the world. Agriculture’s role in the United States is remarkable, he said, with 31 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide coming from the trade.

In order to make a difference in the worldwide food challenge and global climate change, Beachy supports genetically modifying plants through biotechnology. If farmers can maximize crops while minimizing use of water and pesticides, there are chances to make a dramatic change in hunger trends worldwide, he said.

Beachy gave an example from agriculture in India, where 10 million eggplant farmers’ crops are affected by the same virus. Over 80 fertilizing sprays are used on a single field. Through their research in biotechnology, scientists created a species of eggplant that’s resistant to the virus, reducing the need for fertilizers.

Last year, author and environmental activist Vandana Shiva came to GC to speak on the importance of local farming as a way of solving worldwide hunger problems. Beachy acknowledged the differences in viewpoints between himself and Shiva.

“Vandana Shiva is against genetically modified food,” he said. Progress can be made through incorporation of biotechnology and genetically modified crops, he said, adding that Obama recently pledged $3.5 billion through the Feed the Future initiative to aid agriculture and food security.

The lecture concluded with a question and answer time, and Beachy ended his formal lecture with the hope that science would continue to collaborate with governmental policy.

“Those of us who grow up in science want to be useful,” he said. “I hope you will continue to use science in your decision-making process.”

Written by Laura Schlabach

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