Southern Ag Consortium for Underserved Communities (SACUC)

The historically Black land-grant institutions, also called the 1890 land-grants--referring to the year of the Congressional Act creating them, are working together on projects they deem beneficial to small and limited resource farmers and rural communities. "We partner because we have clients with similar needs and circumstances," says Walter Hill, Tuskegee’s dean of agriculture, "and it promotes cross-fertilization of ideas."

Case study: the Southern Agbiotech Consortium for Underserved Communities (SACUC). After a competitive proposal process, $3.8 million was awarded over four years to SACUC ("sa" rhyming with "ma" followed by "cook)." Eleven universities from across the 10 Black Belt states in the South belong: —Alabama A&M, Tuskegee, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Florida A&M, Fort Valley State, Alcorn State, Langston in Oklahoma, North Carolina A&T State, Southern in Baton Rouge, South Carolina State and Virginia State.

"SACUC is about reaching out to those usually left out, those hardly ever in the know," says Marceline Egnin, plant biotechnologist at Tuskegee for over a decade who is co-PI (principal investigator) with Govind Sharma of Alabama A&M University, the lead institution on the project.

"We’re talking about several objectives: biotech education for farmers and students, for teachers in our local schools, both groups working under situations of limited resources."

"We’re also talking about the general public and the leaders of our communities. Each year each consortium university offers a workshop for those wanting to know more about biotechnology even though they do not have backgrounds in science. The concepts of biotechnology can be communicated to those without a scientific background," Sharma adds.

According to Nick Alvarez, horticultural specialist with the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment Station on campus, Tuskegee’s biotech work with farmers is spearheaded by our Extension workers in the various counties: Rory Stephens in Barbour and Bullock, Walter Baldwin in Macon and Montgomery, Alphonso Elliott in Dallas and Perry, George Hunter in Lowndes and Wilcox, and Jerry Burton in Sumter and Marengo counties and Mike McIntyre in Greene and Hale counties.

Agbiotech education with farmers under this project adapts the movable school concept for which Tuskegee University has been known worldwide since its beginning. At that time it meant having a horse-drawn wagon bring exhibits of various robust-looking vegetables and other products from the farm that were grown using scientific methods. By observation farmers could immediately see the difference between these crops and their own. They wanted to know how they could raise similar vigorous crops themselves .

SACUC bought biotech sweet and field corn from companies like Monsanto, Pioneer and Sangento, all of whom have bio-engineered insect and virus resistance into their seed. U.S. supermarkets have been carrying Bt corn since 1996. "That’s why you never find a worm in your store-bought corn anymore and hardly ever any insect damage at all," Alvarez says.

Farmers were invited to a session before planting season to find out more about ag biotech on a practical level. By growing bio-engineered seed side-by-side with the seed corn they had been planting, they could compare the yields from each. They had less than a handful of farmers that first year. In Year 3, two hands could not count the farmers eager to try it. Each of them has had other farmers observing their fields. They wanted to see if their yields increased and if damage from cornborers was decreased.

Bt stands for a bacterium commonly found in soil called Bacillus thuringiensis. Its significance is that it produces proteins carrying a toxin that kills certain insects but has no effect on humans. Several strains of corn borers, the ones whose worm-like larva bore holes in ears of corn and make them undesirable, die when the larva eat them. Farmers often spray their crop, but a rain can wash that protection away. Organic farmers spray the bacteria itself onto cornfields as a natural form of protection.

Agbiotech companies have gone to their labs and isolated the gene that codes for the toxin. In a long process, the gene is inserted into seed and sold to farmers. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA say Bt protein is not harmful to humans, animals, fish, wildlife, or the environment.

The last of SACUC’s objectives was surveying the socioeconomic impacts of biotech on small farmers. At Tuskegee University, agricultural economist Ellene Kebede is responsible for determining these. "Probably the overall benefit to farmers using agbiotech was spending less on inputs such as insecticides and having higher outputs. That increases the bottom line for them and their families," she says. But her survey results showed that the majority of small farmers have limited knowledge, are not sure of the benefits of agbiotech and would need technical and financial assistance to introduce bio-engineered crops on their farms, such as SACUC did with Bt corn.

   (Adapted from an article that appeared in Tuskegee Horizons (Fall/Winter 2003-2004), the magazine of the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences.)