By Professor Torbert Rocheford
In June 2015 I was very engaged in genetics and breeding of corn for higher levels of ProVitamin A carotenoids to help address Vitamin A deficiencies in sub-Saharan Africa. This natural breeding process is termed biofortification. I was googling the word carotenoids and stumbled upon a conference called ‘Macular Carotenoids’. I had never heard of the term macular carotenoids. I went to the meeting website and learned about the upcoming Macular Carotenoids Conference in July 2015. After reading for just a few minutes I said to myself – “I have to go to this conference”. At the time, I was contemplating initiating some breeding of orange corn for total carotenoids for the USA, and I said to myself “I need to go hear and learn from the experts in this field”.
Earlier that year, Ministry Officials in Zambia asked administrators of HarvestPlus, the organization that supported my ProVitamin A corn breeding for Africa: “You want us to grow and eat orange corn, do you grow and eat it in the USA?” Unfortunately, the reply was “No.” Upon which the Zambians queried “Is there something wrong with orange corn, why do you want us to grow and eat it when you do not grow and eat it in the USA?” After discussions with HarvestPlus, I decided to consider growing some orange corn in the USA and giving some to chefs and doing some educational school lunches. I figured if we ate a pound or more of orange corn, then we could say “Yes, we eat orange corn in the USA”. However, we essentially do not have Vitamin A deficiencies in the USA. Upon reading more about the benefits of macular carotenoids, I started to make plans to attend the 2015 Macular Carotenoids Conference (MCC).
However, getting to the MCC was going to be complicated. I was already committed to participate in the Xiangshan Science Conference at Fragrance Hill near Bejing. This meeting involved the HarvestPlus Director and a global group of scientists involved in biofortification of various crops participating to provide information on the merits of breeding for greater nutritional density. High levels of Chinese government are involved, a report goes to the President, and then major investment decisions are made. This was first time non-Chinese scientists were invited. Chinese government later approved major investments in biofortification. Unfortunately, I would have to come back from China and then leave for London the next day. I went ahead and booked, as there was just no question in my mind I had to go to this conference.
I got to Cambridge the most jet-lagged I have ever been and straggled to the conference. Yet what I learned the first morning of the conference was just so amazing! I felt that if after the first morning I had just turned around and gone home, it would have been worth the while. I seem to recall that there were reports on possible associations of macular carotenoids with visual health, brain health, and cognitive function that morning session or later that day. Thus I was now well aware of good health reasons to breed for higher levels of macular carotenoids in corn for the USA.
I met John Nolan and shared that if he had any speaker cancelations I had a 20 minute talk ready from my trip to China. There was a cancelation, and John asked me to talk. The response to my presentation from conference participants was quite friendly, positive, inquisitive, and encouraging. Seemed like I had practically parachuted into a conference and brought a different yet relevant aspect to the meeting theme. I went back to the States all excited. In the next few weeks, I decided to form an entrepreneurial start-up company with my son Evan – NutraMaize. We now have orange corn milled products: grits, cornmeal, flour that are sold throughout the USA on Amazon, some retail stores, and served in some restaurants. We have secured over two million dollars from the National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer Program (STTR) Phase I & II and USDA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I & II grant program. Our NSF-supported research has expanded to orange popcorn. Our USDA-funded research includes feeding orange corn to laying hens to increase macular carotenoids in egg yolks, which provides a highly bioavailable source of carotenoids. We have shown health benefits to broilers, notably reduction of foot pad dermatitis sores when fed orange corn. We regularly cite research I first learned about by attending the MCC in our presentations, proposals and publications. Evan Rocheford was selected to be a Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ young entrepreneur awardee, and from this exposure selected by ‘GoDaddy’ website creation company as a ‘Young Mover’ and featured on their national television and YouTube commercials. GoDaddy reworked www.ProfessorTorberts.com gratis, where you can learn more about our products and efforts.
I do not know what might have happened if I had not attended MCC 2015. My mindset was to maybe work with an organic grower and use the Open Pollinated Variety (OPV) that I had developed for Africa. OPVs are a pre-1920s technology, yet still used with seed saving in Africa in places where people do not have the money to buy commercially produced F1 hybrid seed. My learning about the role of macular carotenoids in visual and brain health and cognitive function has provided us with significant motivation to bring new products to the marketplace to benefit humans. This knowledge motivated us to write grant proposals to develop F1 hybrids that yield more with the goal of making orange corn more economically viable. The continued research by members of the BON community provides us with useful information to discuss and cite in new proposals. I am certainly very thankful to the organizers and participants of the MCC/BON Conferences, they have had a big impact on my research activities and entrepreneurial efforts. Meetings are very important for sharing knowledge and moving cooperation, collaboration, and science forward and ultimately benefiting others.
Thank You MCC/BON Community, Torbert Rocheford