Aug 13, 2012 • By

Better oats through cutting-edge technology

Most people don’t give much thought to the humble oat crop.

But you can count Lane Johnson and Eric Jackson, two General Mills scientists, among those who do.

Long-valued for its health profile, taste and even sustainability attributes, oats have remained popular over the past century among consumers and food makers alike.

But America’s oat production has declined rapidly since the 1950s, and in fact, the average acreage that oat occupies in the word has decreased 58 percent over the last 10 years. Research on oats, which can unlock the tools to naturally breed better oats, has also lagged significantly behind that of other crops such as corn, soybeans and barley.

Eric and Lane, along with their colleagues in General Mills’ Agricultural Research department, have led important and ground-breaking research on oats with a goal of improving the health characteristics and agronomics of the crop by better understanding its genetic makeup.

I recently met Eric and Lane during a visit to the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and learned more about the company’s agricultural research efforts.

General Mills partners with the NCRC to collaboratively uncover solutions that could improve the nutrition of food, including whole grains and vegetables.

Since the company joined the NCRC just more than two years ago, much of our research collaboration has focused on oats.

Why is oat research a big focus for General Mills’ Agricultural Research department, a group that has a more than 80-year history focused primarily on Green Giant vegetables?

Well, as the company behind Cheerios, Nature Valley Granola Bars and other oat-based bars and snacks, General Mills is one of the largest users and handlers of oats in North America.

I learned that natural oat breeding is almost completely managed by public sector programs that have greatly diminished in number and size in recent years, and that we believed it was important to be more proactive about trying to use traditional breeding to improve the benefits of the crop.

Beyond its health profile, oats is a crop with many sustainable attributes, such as using less herbicide, pesticide, insecticide and fertilizer than other major crops, and having a natural ability to improve soil health.

General Mills feels so strongly about making sure that oats remain a sustainable and quality crop that in 2009, the company funded a USDA initiative to promote public research on oats in order to produce a natural genetic “road map” for the crop.

Our initial investment triggered other groups to invest and the research, named the Collaborative Oat Research Enterprise, eventually included a partnership of more than 30 scientists who worked to create a natural genetic road map for oats in less than two years. The map gives oat breeders the tools to use traditional breeding techniques to improve the crop.

Based on this significant accomplishment, we’ve embarked on our own proprietary research at the NCRC to explore traditional ways to improve the health characteristics of oats while retaining its agronomical and sustainability features.

Our presence at the NCRC reflects the company’s collaborative and connected approach to innovation. The partnership gives us access to state-of-the art facilities and equipment, as well as deep expertise in genomic testing and analytics, without having to invest the capital to build up the capability ourselves.

The NCRC was established by David H. Murdock, chairman of Dole Food Company, and is a private-public venture created to foster collaborations between universities, government agencies and industry partners in the fields of agriculture, nutrition and health. Eight universities, such as Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte, have research space at the facility as well as businesses such as General Mills and Dole Foods.

General Mills’ space is located at the heart of the NCRC in the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI), which houses one of the largest and most advanced scientific equipment collections of its kind anywhere in the world.

I asked Lane, director of Agricultural Research for General Mills, to explain the company’s history of agricultural research and the benefits we gain from partnering with the NCRC, in this video interview.

Eric joined General Mills earlier this year after a successful career conducting and leading public oat research, including the Collaborative Oat Research Enterprise.

He now works at the NCRC full time to oversee and lead our research there day-to-day. In the following audio clip, he talked with me about the benefits of collaborating with researchers at the NCRC.

Learn more about General Mills’ commitment to sustainable agriculture here.

Editor’s note: The site of the research campus was once home to Cannon Mills, one of the largest manufacturers of sheets and towels in the world. The company was sold a number of times throughout its history and its last owner, Pillowtex Corporation, went bankrupt in 2003 and closed the mill. David H. Murdock purchased the former mill site in 2004 with a vision of returning jobs and industry to the city. Learn more about Kannapolis’ history here.