Alcorn State University researchers working to improve quality of life, economic vitality in southwest Mississippi

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

LORMAN &045; Powerful allies in improving the quality of life in Southwest Mississippi, researchers at the Department of Agriculture at Alcorn State University work in relative obscurity from most of the people they serve &045; unseen and unheralded but daily plotting new schemes and developing new products affecting income, health, clothing, housing and the environment.

From soybeans to swine, scientists such as Dr. George Bates move from one project to another at the research center on the ASU Lorman campus, where today a six-year study of soy products soon will result in a cookbook for consumers.

&uot;This project has involved six or seven institutions in the Southeast,&uot; said Bates, associate research director. &uot;The purpose was to breed some new varieties of soy for human food and to see how best they could be used.&uot;

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With some funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project looked for ways to make soy products more palatable for American consumers.

Juliet Huam, a research associate, said most Americans still resist soy products as a substitute for animal protein.

&uot;Soy foods contain high quality protein, are low in fat, fiber rich and cholesterol free,&uot; she said. It has been her role to test the foods as recipes were developed.

Bates said some varieties of soy always have been better tasting to human consumers. &uot;We wanted to see how these varieties differ and see how each could be best used.&uot;

The impact of the research is, at the least, twofold &045; promoting healthy diets by creating soy products that can substitute for high-fat meats and enhancing the farmers’ profits from increased demands for soybeans.

Huam and student researchers prepared 200 bags of soynut cookies during the past week to send to a conference in Atlanta. Taste testers deemed the cookie a winner, and now the university is seeking someone to license the product, Bates said.

&uot;We would just want a small royalty to help us continue our research on the recipes,&uot; Bates said.

Soy foods have grown in popularity but have not caught on as researchers at Alcorn hope one day they will. Therapeutic and health benefits of soy are receiving more notice, however. They are extremely high in the phytochemical called isoflavones, which have the potential for fighting many chronic diseases.

Huam, with expertise in sensory evaluation, has worked with crawfish, Chinese melon and many other products in the nearly 20 years she has been at Alcorn.

The soy research has been exciting, she said. However, she will be ready when the focus changes.

Bates said the next food research will turn to sweet potatoes. Huam said that already has begun, and she’s enjoying every bit of it.

Sweet potatoes, like soybeans, are loaded with nutrition. &uot;Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritious foods we grow,&uot; Bates said. &uot;We will develop new food products but also will work on 150 different varieties of sweet potato to screen for insect and drought resistance.&uot;

The research center will try to isolate the gene that provides the desirable qualities to give farmers in the area a good-producing variety. &uot;I was in Brazil two weeks ago and passed a trash heap and just happened to see a vine growing there with beautiful purple flowers on it,&uot; Bates said. &uot;I looked closer and realized it was a wild sweet potato vine. Now that would be a good variety to resist drought.&uot;

The research carried out at Alcorn covers many plants as well as livestock of all kind, particularly work done under the umbrella of the Center for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics.

&uot;We do a lot of work with hogs,&uot; Bates said. &uot;We have sold excess breeding stock to local producers &045; about 1,100 over the past five years &045; to help strengthen their stock.&uot;

That kind of sharing with farmers has a ripple effect in the economy. &uot;If I sell someone five sows to increase the size of their herd, that means they will buy more feed and they will have more work for the veterinarians, just as a couple of examples.&uot;

When a study showed that dairy farmers were the major phosphate polluters of the Gulf of Mexico, Alcorn researchers helped to correct the problem.

All of the research falls under at least one of three objectives, said Bates, who also teaches a couple of courses a year, including a genetics course in livestock breeding.

Those objectives are to increase the income of limited resource farmers; to improve the quality of life for rural residents and beyond; and to protect and improve the environment.

Future research projects include some exciting ones, Bates said. &uot;Some of those depend on some grants we’ve applied for. They will be very good for our part of Mississippi.&uot;