The natural path

While prominent figures in the local business and university communities eagerly pursue biotechnology, another group is charting a less flashy path toward economic self-sufficiency that, philosophically, is miles apart.

A cadre of state, academic and private-industry leaders is hatching a nonprofit called the N.C. Natural Products Association, says Greg Cumberford, senior resources manager at Gaia Herbs in Brevard.

“Biotechnology offers the prospect of significant federal dollars and significant private dollars coming into our region. It has its legacy appeal to the leaders that are promoting it,” observes Cumberford. “And natural products doesn’t. Natural products is much more organic, much more grassroots and much more humble, I guess, in terms of its economic glitter.”

What’s more, nothing in the natural-products arena requires genetic manipulation, he notes.

The budding organization’s goals include:

• establishing a forum for strategic thinking across the private, governmental and academic sectors aimed at making the state a leading producer of premium-quality natural products;

• conducting training and outreach sessions for farmers, responsible wildcrafters and others; and

• serving as an umbrella organization to attract grants and other support for developing innovative natural products.

Assorted groups and individuals are already working on developing natural products, but those efforts haven’t been broadly coordinated, Cumberford explains.

For example, the Yellow Creek Botanical Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Graham County, is working with N.C. State’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher on developing ways to farm bloodroot (which is native to WNC) commercially. Bloodroot’s antimicrobial properties caught the eye of a German company, Phytobiotics, which uses the plant as an additive to animal feed instead of antibiotics, says Yellow Creek’s executive director, Robin Suggs.

And since virtually all the bloodroot marketed today is harvested from the wild, finding ways to farm it could help preserve the species while giving farmers a new cash crop, notes Associate Professor Jeanine Davis of the Research and Extension Center. Neither Yellow Creek nor the research station does any genetic modification, focusing instead on selection and hybridization, officials report.

These two entities work together, but many other groups and individuals are unaware of what others in the field are up to.

“It’s completely disorganized,” laments Cumberford. “There’s not even a directory of who’s doing what.”

Creating such a directory could be another early goal for the group, along with building a Web site (which could offer farmers an electronic bulletin board for sharing information) and hosting a conference. Potential members, he says, cover a broad spectrum: farmers and craftspeople, manufacturers, researchers, agronomists, doctors and pharmacists.

“This is something that’s very exciting, and we’re not talking barefooted hippies stomping on Saint Johnswort flower buds to make juice,” Cumberford says wryly. “This is a 10-plus-billion-dollar industry in the United States.”

[For more info on the N.C. Natural Products Association, contact Smithson Mills in the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Asheville office by e-mail (smithson.mills@ncmail.net) or phone (225-1712).]

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