One of this year's biggest stories in agriculture and health will be the way selenium, a common element in certain North American crops and foods, is being positioned as a means of moderating the ravages of AIDS. To the farm sector, which says it's serious about aligning itself more with health matters, the issues don't get much bigger than this.

Selenium has a role to play in normal human and animal development. Beyond that, its extraordinary effect on AIDS has been discussed in health circles for at least a decade, and in earnest for at least three or four years. Google selenium and AIDS, and you'll see all kinds of discussions, speculation and studies about the topic. The inevitable exploitative snake oil salespeople lurk about the Internet selling miracle selenium-related elixirs, but so do researchers from reputable institutions.

For example, in January, a study from the University of Miami that appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal made headlines when it reported that more than 260 AIDS patients who took selenium suppressed the virus and boosted their immune systems.

It's not exactly known how selenium stimulates immunity, or how it does other wonderful things such as serving as an antioxidant and improving prostate health. But there's a growing selenium fan club, with apparently few naysayers. Those who are issuing cautions mainly worry about people taking too much selenium, because in high doses it becomes toxic.

Anyway, I'd never heard selenium talked about in the farm community for anything other than animal health improvement until last week, at a huge scientific symposium in Kentucky sponsored by Alltech, a rapidly expanding global feed-additive company headquartered in the bluegrass state.

The 23rd annual symposium, attended by 1,500 participants from more than 70 countries and 87 journalists from 40-plus countries — including Albania, for the first time — featured dozens of experts from the world of agricultural science. They included University of Guelph researchers Trevor Smith and Kees de Lange, who made presentations about farm- and companion-animal feed issues and specific species.

Into this well-orchestrated mix came Alltech's director of nutrition, Kate Jacques. Midway through the conference, at a plenary session entitled "Selenium and the HIV pandemic," she talked about how the infectivity of HIV gets worse with selenium deficiency.

Some of the information she presented, and studies I found later, suggest — but don't yet have widespread buy in from the medical community — that selenium supplementation stimulates the immune system. That makes people with HIV more able to deal with the disease. It's not a cure; rather, it's a way of dealing with what's presently an incurable disease.

Farmers have known for some time that selenium-deficient animals can have an array of identifiable health problems. In agriculture, selenium is often given to livestock as part of a normal preventive health management program or, in other cases, to boost production and immunity. In many parts of the world — including most areas east of the Mississippi River in North America — selenium is naturally low in the soil, where it is taken up by the plants we (and livestock) eat as a conventional selenium source.

Alltech is well aware of selenium's virtues and popularity. In fact, Alltech, a family-owned company which realized sales of $400 million last year, is a huge manufacturer of organic selenium, and markets it to farmers around the world under the brand name Sel-Plex. That gives Alltech, whose Canadian headquarters are in Guelph, a vested interest on the matter of selenium and human health, even though it manufactures selenium mainly for livestock.

But as people such as nutrition director Jacques appear in public forums and make a case for selenium and human health, Alltech and the rest of agriculture and agri-business will get drawn into the issue. After her presentation, Jacques wondered aloud about the challenges and politics of eventually adding powdered selenium to milled corn, in African countries where AIDS is rampant.

Disease management through food is consistent with the position on malnutrition taken by former United Nations envoy on AIDS in Africa, Canadian Stephen Lewis. He's been out of the spotlight lately, but a few years ago he was continually quoted as saying the first step in dealing with AIDS was to ensure those who were infected with HIV were adequately fed, so they'd be strong enough to fight the virus.

Basically, Jacques is advocating a similar approach, one which merits further discussion with the medical community and poverty-relief and development organizations, who could look at the matter from all sides. AIDS workers and awareness campaigns are making progress in some African countries — Uganda, in particular — but in others such as Zambia and Botswana, HIV is raging and has infected more than 20 per cent of the population. There's a big opportunity for people with knowledge, money and principles to get involved.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.