Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org
* More on GMOs
* ... Response from Peter Henriot SJ of Zambia
* 'Let Them Eat GM' - The EU Case Study, Food Safety
* GM Crop Benefits
* Expert Touts Bio-Tech Crops
* Happy Birthday Biotech, A Decade of Discovery
* Substantial Equivalence via Metabolomics
* 1,000 ha of GM Corn in France
* How Sorghum Could Help Fight Hunger and Poverty in Africa
More on GMOs
- Piero Morandini, Promotio Justitiae, No 87, 2005/2;
Allow me to comment on the article 'The Geopolitics of GMOs' by Peter
Henriot SJ which appeared in Promotio Iustitiae two years ago (PJ79,
2003/3). I feel it is important to clarify for your readership and
the Catholic community that the views expressed in that article in no
way reflect the scientific consensus or the Vatican's position on the
The antecedents to this letter are as follows. The Jesuit Centre for
Theological Reflection (JCTR) from Zambia produced in the Summer of
2002 a document about GMOs in which they opposed the introduction of
GMOs into the country, even in form of food aid.2
Famine started to bite Zambia and other countries in the region. A
group of scientists (I was one of them) assembled a document3 in
response to the original JCTR paper. The document was sent to the
JCTR and to a few other people involved and then released to the
public in October 2002. It contained a detailed criticism, loaded
with data and facts, reaching the conclusion that the JCTR position
could not stand scientifically; nor, in our view, could it stand
To my knowledge, we never received any direct response to our
commentary. An indirect response was given in a single paragraph of a
contribution written by Fr. Henriot in the same issue PJ79 (2003/3).
I reproduce the entire paragraph:
"The position taken by the study [published by the JCTR] was
scientifically, politically and ethically controversial, but surely
arguable on decent lines of respectful dialogue. The report was
posted on the JCTR web site and widely circulated to church
officials, NGOs, the diplomatic community and other interested
parties. Compliments came from some international groups (e.g., Food
First, Friends of the Earth) and complaints from others (e.g., some
agro scientists who had worked for Monsanto) - all to be expected."
Is it possible to dismiss the whole content of our document on these
grounds? Does Fr. Henriot mean that anybody who has worked for
Monsanto is unable to provide rationally valid arguments on
agricultural biotechnology? Is Fr Henriot providing the statement
reported above as an example of how to argue "on decent lines of
respectful dialogue"? Can he confidently define our document as a
Even if one may consider it to be true that people who worked for
Monsanto are unreliable critics, I hereby state that I have never
been employed by Monsanto or any other industry, and I am sure that
this true of many of the co- authors, if not all. I do not even mind
asking all the co- authors about this, because I believe rational
arguments must be answered with rational arguments, not gratuitous
allegations. I would expect an apology for stating a fact about me
that is not true. But more importantly, I would also expect a
response to our document. Failure to do so could give the impression
that no 'decent line' of argument to defend their position is
Very interestingly, two contributions in the same issue of Promotio
Iustitiae expressed a positive attitude towards the technology. These
two articles came from two Jesuits: Frs Leo D'Souza and Savarimuthu
Ignacimuthu. Both have a scientific background enabling them to
understand the science behind GMO crops. Why not trust them? I could
provide other ample examples of a lack of understanding of the
technology by the other contributors to the same discussion. Anybody
discussing the details of the technology without a proper background
can be easily mistaken and is in great danger of harming other
people. I therefore urge great caution to all those involved in the
debate. I am available at any time to provide the evidence that the
scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in favour of the GMO crops
approved so far and that the benefits for developing countries are
The document "To Die or Not to Die" explained substantial benefits
that would protect the people of Zambia during a time of famine from
the use of foods produced from transgenic crops. The authors of the
document took seriously the moral challenge to use agricultural
biotechnology to feed the hungry expressed by the Pontifical Academy
of Science (as expressed by President Nicola Cabibbo):
"The developments [in biotechnology] we have discussed here
constitute an important part of human innovation, and they clearly
offer substantial benefits for the improvement of the human condition
worldwide. They are essential elements in the development of
sustainable agricultural systems capable of feeding not only the
eighth of the world's population that is now hungry, but also meeting
the future needs of the growing world population. To make the best
use of these new technologies and the agricultural management
opportunities they create is a moral challenge for scientists and
governments throughout the world."
Kindly accept my best regards and the assurance of my prayers for the
people of Zambia coupled with actions for the protection of their
1. I want to thank Fr. Samir Khalil SJ for suggesting to write this letter.
2. The document is available at the JCTR site:
3. It is available at: http://www.agbioworld.org/pdf/To_Die_or_not_to_Die.pdf
4. I have attempted on several different occasions for two years to
begin a dialogue with Fr Henriot and Fr. Lesseps, but did not receive
a response either on their allegations or on the points raised in our
Piero Morandini, PhD, Dept. of Biology, University of Milan - ITALY,
Response from Peter Henriot SJ of Zambia
The scientific, political and ethical debate about the acceptability
of GMOs as an answer to the problem of feeding the world's hungry is
by no means finished. On reliable grounds the Government of Zambia
has continued to resist outside pressure to accept GMOs and the
country has been able, with good agricultural practices and adequate
rainfall, to feed its people. It is important to note that to date
the Vatican has not taken any official position in this debate.
It was not my intention to identify Dr. Morandini as an employee of
Monsanto but simply to indicate in the paragraph that he cites that
there is a wide range of opinion, including that expressed in the
document that he co-authored. While the debate continues, those of us
working in on the ground in Zambia will continue to support the
Government's position against introducing GMOs.
- Peter Henriot SJ, Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, ZAMBIA
Let Them Eat GM: The EU Case Study, Food Safety
- Sarah French, Times Educational Supplement (UK), Sept. 30, 2005
'Brussels is now admitting scientifically altered foods into Europe.
It is a significant change in policy.'
To the animals that will eat it and the corn rootworm beetle that it
was bred to resist, the maize known as MON863 looks innocuous enough.
But the corn has become the latest potent ingredient in the debate
over genetic modification and whether crops that have been altered by
scientists should enter the food chain.
For farmers in the Midwest of the United States, the maize represents
a breakthrough against a serious pest. For its American producer,
Monsanto, the approval granted last month by the European Union for
the commercial import of MON863 is a significant step.
It is one of only three new Monsanto products to be allowed into
Europe since April last year. For the previous six years, a de facto
moratorium had stalled approvals after a strong campaign against GM
crops on this side of the Atlantic. The admission of MON863 suggests
the process is beginning to tick forward.
For anti-GM campaigners, one more genetically modified organism (GMO)
in Europe is one too many. To Greenpeace, the authorisation
symbolises everything that is wrong with EU democracy. MON863 was
approved by the European Commission on August 8 despite opposition
from more than half of the EU's 25 member states. It is, Greenpeace
argues, another example of a genetically modified organism being
forced through by the un-elected body.
Genetically modified crops have been around since Monsanto's
scientists successfully altered the genetic material of plant cells
for the first time in 1992. Five companies in the world now produce
them. Soya bean, corn, cotton and oil seed rape are the most common
commercially grown GM crops.
The makers says GM crops pose little risk and have enormous potential
benefits. With the ability to grow in environments where others fail,
they can literally be used to feed the world. They can be bred to
contain more nutrients and to produce better yields, using less water
and energy; some require fewer herbicides and pesticides so are
better for the environment too.
Opponents say genetic engineering is crude and imprecise, and may
trigger unexpected harmful effects in plants or humans. Seeds from GM
crops present a serious danger of cross-contamination with
conventional and organic crops and could create "superweeds" that are
highly resistant to pests. Rather than helping Third World farmers,
they say, the wealth produced by GM is concentrated in the hands of
too few companies.
Authorisation for GM organisms is dealt with by Brussels because of
the trade agreement between EU states. By delegating decision-making
powers to the EU, countries become part of the single biggest trading
bloc in the world.
In the 1990s, according to Monsanto, the system of approvals for GM
products was "relatively straightforward". But in 1996, with GM crops
flowing into European ports, Greenpeace and others began a campaign
to raise awareness and to gather support for a ban on their import.
EU legislation since the early 1990s had had two main objectives: to
protect human health and the environment, and to ensure the free
movement of safe GM products within the EU. Once the Greenpeace
campaign gathered steam, opinions in Strasbourg and Brussels hardened
against GM. Member states were ready to take on the might of the US.
As public concern mounted over the perceived potential risks, some
countries banned certain GM organisms within their own borders . Then
at a meeting of the Council of Environment Ministers in 1999, some EU
states agreed to block authorisations of any new organisms in Europe
until scientific uncertainties were lifted and legislation was
improved. Other EU countries and the Commission considered that
action to be illegal. They agreed, however, to take a "thoroughly
precautionary approach" in dealing with new authorisations and the
six-year de facto moratorium began.
Dr Colin Merritt, a spokesman for Monsanto, comments: "Because of the
voting procedures of the EU, there is capacity for a blocking group
to prevent approvals based not on factual or safety reasons but on
political positions." In May 2003, the US, Argentina and Canada
retaliated against the EU, lodging formal complaints with the World
Trade Organisation. The US has used this as a platform to warn other
nations tempted to follow Europe's approach.
There are endless theories as to why such a gulf exists between the
US and Europe; Americans have been consuming foods containing GM
ingredients for a decade, but Europeans remain sceptical. "More than
70 per cent of European consumers, including those in eastern Europe,
reject GMOs," says Eric Gall of Greenpeace . "The Commission expected
all the new member states to be less concerned about the environment
and more pro-USA, but that is not what we're seeing. Poland and
Hungary have already enacted bans on the cultivation of a GM maize to
conduct further studies."
Application and authorisation procedures for GM organisms in Europe
are lengthy because of the uniquely complex way the EU works. The
system allows states to express their approval or objection to GM
organisms - some, such as the Netherlands, Spain and the UK, are
considered to be pro-GM; others, including Austria, Greece and
Denmark, are vehemently anti. In practice the European Commission
controls the process. It has the power to speed it along and to
authorise particular GM organisms where disagreement exists between
Before decisions are taken, assessments are carried out and opinions
are sought from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which was
set up in 2002 to provide scientific guidance. Greenpeace complains
that the system is undemocratic and not transparent."The EFSA
dismisses any scientific concerns of national authorities and the
Commission effectively over-rules the member states' objections,"
says Mr Gall.
Dr Merritt of Monsanto counters: "Opponents will say the Commission
is very pro-GM, but it is an administrative body which makes
proposals based on guidelines and test analyses rather than political
Chris Davies, Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West, admits the
Commission is walking a tightrope. "The EU is a collective
partnership and the Commission acts as an arbiter where member states
can't make up their mind," he says. "They leave it to the Commission,
which becomes everyone's whipping boy, but someone has to make a
The European Parliament in Strasbourg is proud of the crucial role it
has played in the new legislation introduced last year, especially in
relation to demanding a legal framework of traceability for GM
organisms and meaningful labelling so consumers can make an informed
With the new legislation in place, the moratorium against GM products
was unofficially lifted in April 2004. EU states still have the
option of invoking the "safeguard clause" to impose a national ban on
a particular product.
Europe's authorisation procedures are now considered to be among the
most rigorous in the world, designed to safeguard human health and
That neither GM supporters nor opponents are completely in favour of
the system suggests it is working as well as it can in dealing with
such a complex and controversial issue.
GM Crop Benefits
- Western Morning News (Plymouth, UK), Oct. 6, 2005
Is crop spraying less damaging than growing GM crops? The article in
Westcountry Farming (September 28) highlights the problems of crop
spraying, and its effects on people living alongside farms.
These sprays include sulphuric acid as well as pesticides, but no
mention was made of the much-reduced need for spraying when GM crops
are planted. These require spraying on fewer occasions, and use more
benign compounds such as glyphosate - so safe that it can be used in
gardens where children play.
So when Biddy Garstang's letter ("No going back once GM seeds are
sown", September 27) puts forward blinkered demands for GM-free
zones, she is in effect asking rural dwellers to put up with the
continuing problem of farmland spraying because she and her friends
do not like GM technology.
What sort of policy is that? Even organic farmers use sprays of some
chemicals. And independent opinion polls suggest there is no "growing
public concern" - most people put it very low on the list of things
that worry them.
Only the activist pressure groups are maintaining the pressure, for
deep reasons I fail to understand. If they were to campaign against
chemical spraying on Britain's farmland, I could understand it, but
as GM crops now in use have abundantly been shown to be harmless,
their opposition lacks any credibility.
The benefits of GM crops have been enthusiastically grasped by
farmers round the world. In Brazil, where until recently GM soybeans
were banned, farmers smuggled the seeds in from Argentina so they too
could enjoy the benefits of farming them. In the US, 89 per cent of
soybean crops are GM, and about 70 per cent of grocery products
contain GM-derived constituents. In the EU, Spain has embraced GM
maize, and this is being grown in southern France as well.
Only the prejudiced are trying to prevent these beneficial plant
varieties. For many countries, there is no going back to more costly
- Deryck Laming, Exeter
Expert Touts Bio-Tech Crops
- The Associated Press, via Iowa City Press Citizen, Oct 13, 2005
Des Moines -- A U.S. Department of State trade policy adviser said he
hopes developing countries will come on board with crop biotechnology
to help end hunger and poverty around the world. Jack Bobo said
biotech crops may not solve problems such as starvation and
malnutrition, but can be a major tool in combatting them.
"We do not believe biotechnology is a silver bullet. We think it is
one tool that should be in the arsenal of the scientists and
regulators of these countries," he told a crowd of about 100 at the
World Food Prize International Symposium on Wednesday.
Bobo said about 81 million hectares -- or about 200 million acres --
of biotech crops were grown in 17 countries throughout the world last
year. Also last year, the European Union ended a six-year moratorium
on new genetically modified foods, the most popular of which contain
bacteria genes that make the plants resistant to either bugs or weed
killers. However, many consumers there remain skeptical about the
safety of plants that have been genetically altered.
Despite such resistance, Bobo said the EU imports billions of dollars
of biotech crops from the United States.
"I think it will come as a surprise, at least to a few of you, that
one of the largest importers of biotech products in the world is
Europe," he told the group, which included scholars, researchers and
farmers from around the world.
The European Union has a regulatory system for biotech products, has
worked on about 20 products for commercialization and imports about
$1 billion in U.S. soybeans each year, Bobo said. "The European
market is a market accessible to U.S. farmers, we'd just like it to
be more open to our other products," he said, adding that European
farmers are conducting test trials on biotech products that could
make them ready for commercialization in a couple of years.
"I believe at least in the longer term, Europe will get on board.
That's not really the question -- the question is: When will it get
on board?" he said, adding that the EU's decision impacts developing
countries who follow its lead.
Some developing countries have opposed biotech crops, including
Zambia, which refused U.N. food aid in 2002 because the food was
genetically modified. Bobo said many developing countries haven't
begun the biotech regulatory process and are years away from field
trials, meaning it may be 15 years before they can grow biotech crops
and help their local economies and feed more of their people.
"We really do have concerns that the delay does mean lives in many of
these countries," he said.
Bobo said a division of the State Department is working to educate
such countries on the benefits, as well as the risks, of biotech
Manjit Misra, with Iowa State University's Biosafety Institute for
Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, or BIGMAP, was part of a
panel that spoke along with Bobo. He said the collaborative effort
involving ISU, the University of Iowa and Montana State University,
is developing tools and methodologies for independent, third-party
risk assessment on biotechnology crops.
"It is important that as we profess on this technology, we don't let
it get ahead of us, our ability to manage it," he said.
Happy Birthday Biotech, A Decade of Discovery
- Gary Truitt, Truth About Trade & Technology, Oct. 7, 2005
According to the organization Truth About Trade and Technology, on
October 2nd somewhere in the northern hemisphere, the 1 billionth
acre of biotech crops was harvested. This amazing fact was arrived at
by statisticians using the same formula that is used to determine how
many chips are in a Chips Ahoy cookie, they took an educated guess.
While the exact acre is not important, the fact that biotechnology
has survived and thrived a decade of misinformation, misguided
legislation, and misfit organizations is the real story.
Scientists and plant breeders were quick to spot the agricultural
advantages of this new technology; Luddite technophobes were also
quick to see the potential of this technology as a cause. Predictions
of new food products that were safer, healthier, and easier to grow
were met with predictions of catastrophic ecological calamities and
two-headed children born to parents who eat the Genetically Modified
(GM) food. Over the past decade, the promises of the scientists have
come true while the prophecies of the fear mongers have not.
For most US farmers, their first experience with biotechnology was
Roundup Ready soybeans. Plant the seed, spray the field, and wow no
weeds! Say, this is easy. This technology then spread faster than a
cold at a day care center. It quickly spread to corn and cotton, and
today 24 different crops in the US are using or testing
biotechnology. Like most great US inventions, it did not take long
before the whole world was catching on. According to a study by the
University of Minnesota, GM crops are grown in 18 countries today and
adoption of biotechnology is being considered in another 45. The
study by the Center for International Agricultural Policy reported
that biotech research was currently underway on 57 food and fiber
Meanwhile, a host of environmental and consumer organizations have
been busy churning out millions of pagers of rhetoric denouncing the
new technology and predicting all kinds of dire consequences. They
have also been busy making millions of dollars. By coining the word
"frankenfood," they have engaged in an international campaign to
scare people and bilk them out of millions of dollars in donations.
Biotechnology has been the best thing that has happened to the
environmental movement since save the whales.
"The war is about over," said Truth About Trade and Technology
President Dean Kleckner. Outside of Western Europe, most of the rest
of the world has or is rapidly accepting biotech. China, the most
populous nation on earth, is about to start planting GM rice. Chinese
scientists have been field testing three varieties and will meet next
month to formally endorse biotech. Kleckner points out that rice is
the most grown and consumed grain in the world. In the next few
years, most of that rice will be GM rice.
Another hotbed of biotech activity is Africa. South Africa already
ranks 6th in the world in biotech crop production growing corn,
cotton, and soybeans. Other African nations are slowly discovering
that biotech can help solve some of their chronic food shortages.
While well fed activist groups from Europe have been spreading a lot
of fear and misinformation among African nations, the science is
In the community of Chura not far from Nairobi, Kenya, biotechnology
is bringing hope. Families raise bananas for food and for income.
With the help of DuPont and African Harvest, a Kenyan non-profit
agricultural organization, production has increased from 20 to 45
tons per hectare. Families have seen their income go from $1 a day to
$3 a day. For many, this has meant they can send their children to
school instead of having to keep them home to work.
While biotechnology will continue to change how food is produced, as
it enters its second decade we will change the very food we produce.
For the first time, this year, farmers across the Midwest are
harvesting a new heart-healthy soybean. Soybeans containing low
levels of linolenic acid will be used to produce vegetable oil free
of trans-fatty acids. Other products about to hit the market include:
white corn with higher levels of unsaturated fat, sunflowers with low
saturated fat, and vegetables that ripen more slowly allowing more
time to travel from field to market. Then there are the wheat that
can grow in very dry conditions and the myriad of vitamins and
minerals that can be placed into the food products we grow.
Yet, the drumbeat of doom will continue. As Kleckner put it, "In 10
years not one person in the world has even gotten the sniffles from
biotechnology." Still, those who make money and build careers on
being against things will continue to deny the evidence. It is
estimated it will not take another 10 years to grow our 2nd billionth
acre of biotech crops; that is expected to happen in 4 years.
Substantial Equivalence via Metabolomics
- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and
Education, Bangalore, India
The principle of Substantial Equivalence (SE) has been crucial in the
debate whether genetically engineered (GE) plants might contain
unexpected and potentially undesirable changes in their overall
metabolite composition, on account of GE. In course of time, two
opposing positions have emerged, on the adequacy of SE in determining
the safety of GE products as food and feed.
SE has been a routine and stringent criterion of the US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) in ensuring the safety of foods and drugs
marketed in the US. Efforts are made to demonstrate that a GE variety
and its products are 'substantially equivalent' to its conventional
variety and its products, but for the trnsgenes in the new variety
and the consequent expected products of the transgenes. Once SE is
established, the FDA requires no further regulatory review.
Under the 'provision for voluntary consultation', the US biotech
companies seek SE certification by FDA, of all GE varieties and their
products they intend to market. The product developers submit to the
FDA, voluminous dossiers on the safety and risk analysis of the GE
varieties and their products developed by them. These data are
usually confined to the comparative study of proteins, carbohydrates
and other components of nutritional significance. The focus is on
determining whether the new GE varieties and their products are toxic
or allergenic. If some GE products contain miniscule quantities of a
few additional components that are a) broken down during food
processing or digestion or b) if they occur below acceptable
independently determined threshold levels, the products are regarded
as 'Generally Recognized As Safe' (GRAS).
Products from transgenic soybean, tomato, corn, cotton, etc., on the
US markets have been tested extensively, much more than any
conventional foods, and judged SE to their conventional counterparts.
The US citizens who have been consuming GE food products are a living
testimony of their safety.
Nevertheless, the official consensus of the European Union (EU) is
that, SE should only be used to guide to inform safety assessments.
The EU safety regulations, based on this premise, are so stringent
that they raised doubts whether any GE product will at all qualify to
be considered safe.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is the international
organization established in 1963, jointly by the FAO and WHO, under
the Food Standards Programme. Comprised of 165 member countries, the
CAC also sees SE as a starting point in the regulatory process rather
than an end point.
Recent research by Catchpole Gareth and 11 others, published in the
Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS, September
26, 2005, 26/9/095), used the sophisticated but complex procedures of
Metabolomics, an area of Bioinformatics, to establish SE between GE
and conventional potatoes.
Biological problem solving through Bioinformatics (computational
biology), employs the resources of sophisticated and sensitive
chemical profiling, applied mathematics, informatics, statistics, and
computer science. Till recently, the major efforts in
bioinformatics have been related to unravelling component sequences,
structure and function of nucleic acids (Genomics) and proteins
(Proteomics), in order to predict function from structure and vice
Metabolomics is a 'finger print' study metabolomes, which are the
whole set of chemical entities of a cell, tissue, organ, organisms,
or species. The metabolome includes proteins, RNA, DNA and various
substrates, the molecules enzymes act upon. Metabolomics gives a
'snap shot' of the physiology and its products in a cell. The study
of metabolomes, resulting from stress or disease is metabonomics.
Gareth's team made a comprehensive comparison of total metabolites
(the intermediates and products of metabolism), in field-grown GE and
conventional potato tubers. Their metabolome "fingerprinting"
studies provide for a detailed profiling of metabolites where
significant differences are suspected. They have demonstrated that,
apart from targeted changes, the GM potatoes in the study were
substantially equivalent to traditional cultivars.
The minor differences that were found between the GE and the non-GE
varieties were of the same kind and magnitude of such differences
among the non-GE varieties, that occur on account of natural
variation in gene expression. And these differences are not
significant in the context of the safety of the GE potatoes for human
In the debate on SE it is often held that,
a) the focus of SE has been well known nutritionally significant
components, occurring in considerably large quantities,
b) the studies employed routine food safety testing methods which are
not sensitive enough to detect all components and not detailed total
critical analyses, and
c) that more sophisticated and deep analytical approaches may reveal
chemical compounds hither to unexpected and unknown, which may make
the GE products unsafe for human consumption.
Further, the US SE data were generated not by independent entities
but by the product developers themselves and largely remained in the
private domain, not easy for others to access for evaluation.
The work of Gareth's team is safe from all such criticism.
500 to 1,000 ha of GM Corn in France in 2005
- USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Sep 13, 2005
The French press revealed on September 6 that 500 to 1,000 hectares
of biotech corn are currently under cultivation. While this acreage
is virtually insignificant, this revelation was surprising in that it
represents a sizeable increase from recent years. A wide range of
commentary has ensued. The GOF has delayed the vote of the French
biotech law, including EU Directive 2001/18 provisions, which would
make declaration of biotech production compulsory, and coexistence
rules, for about a year. This proposed law is now expected to be
debated by the French Parliament in early 2006. This spate of
publicity is likely to give impetus to moving the debate on dossier
forward, which would be welcomed by producers and environmentalists
On September 6, 2005, the French popular press announced there are
500 to 1,000 ha of GM corn currently under cultivation in France.
This announcement was surprising since French domestic commercial
production had ranged from 10 to 35 ha per year since 2000 (see
FR5051 dated July 21, 2005). The last year of significant biotech
corn production in France was 1998, where 1,500 ha was planted.
However, despite the significant increase in biotech corn acreage in
2005, it remains marginal relative to the total area covered by corn
in France (1.67 million ha),
Read Comments published in the French Press:
How Sorghum Could Help Fight Hunger and Poverty in Africa
- Cheryl Rainford, Agriculture Online, Oct. 13, 2005 www.agriculture.com
DES MOINES, Iowa - The genetic enhancement of a tiny grain could sow
the seeds of major change in Africa. It's sorghum, a staple food in
many arid African countries.
Genetic enhancements to the crop could improve nutrition in Africa
and start building sustainable economic development there, Dr.
Florence Wambugu told Agriculture Online today.
Wambugu, who spoke at the World Food Prize conference here this week,
is the CEO and founder of the Kenya-based non-profit organization
Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International (Africa Harvest). In
June, Wambugu's organization was awarded a five-year $16.9 million
grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in
Global Health Initiative. The money will fund the African
Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project, which Africa Harvest leads as
part of a consortium.
Wambugu said improving the nutrition of foods from crops grown in
Africa is part of the solution to major health issues there,
including Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. "That is why the Gates
Foundation is funding the fortified sorghum project," she said.
Through such genetic improvement of crops, "the undernourished are
going to have a better recovery from diseases."
"Medicine is not enough. Unless you are well fed it won't work,"
added Daniel Kamanga, a spokesperson for Africa Harvest. "Sorghum
will be important in fighting AIDS, especially down the road,"
according to a spokesperson for Pioneer Hi-Bred International. The
company, which is also involved in the ABS project, has been in
discussions with the United Nations World Food Program, looking at
the connection between food and health.
The grant, Wambugu says, is a shift in the way agricultural research
is done in Africa. Eighty percent of the funding will be spent in
Africa. The remaining 20% will be primarily used to build African
Economic sustainability for Africa starts at the ground level
The immediate emphasis of the project is on growing better and more
sorghum. Doing so will improve nutrition generally. But the project's
goals go further. Improving health at a grassroots level will start a
cycle of sustainability that will increase economic development in
Africa, Wambugu said.
By increasing nutritional status in the short term,
farmer-entrepreneurs there will be better equipped to learn about
farming practices that will allow them to increase their
productivity. Increased productivity will eventually enable them to
sell their surplus crops to feed others. That process, which she
calls becoming "mentally empowered," generates an economy as it
improves health. The key, she said, is engaging and linking -
reaching out to the grassroots community.
For an idea of the urgency of the need for the project, Wambugu
shared the following statistics. Of Africa's 800 million people, 200
million currently live on less than $1 per day. Fully one quarter of
the population of Africa is hungry, eating one meal per day or less.
Of those 200 million, 10% live entirely on food aid.
"Twenty million would die of hunger without food that comes, mainly
from the U.S., through the World Food Program," she said. To U.S.
farmers she said, "What you do does touch people in the world."
But, she noted, "Food aid isn't a real solution to hunger." Drawing a
comparison with living on Food Stamps in the U.S., she said people
lack human dignity when they live on aid. They are not productive.
"When we just consume and don't produce, we are taking away," she
Looking at the larger situation, "The members of the global community
are committed to reduce hunger by half by 2015. But even that is not
an easy goal," Wambugu said. "It's wishful thinking unless we're
willing to go where the problem is and work it bottom up," she said.
There is not a technological fix, she added. "We need to think here
and now. Start with what they know best and help them get to
"It is a milestone-based, targeted project with deliverables and a
clear focus," Wambugu said. Radio spots, community-based information,
collectives and cell phones will be used to disseminate knowledge
about improving the crop. "Word of mouth is a very powerful tool,"
Wambugu noted. "This is a holistic way of approaching a problem that
affects 300 million people in Africa," she said. "The more you can
bring people up, the more you are raised yourself."
Sorghum is a crop already being grown in many African countries where
undernourishment is a problem. The grain is consumed at every meal,
similar to the way rice is consumed in many Asian countries.
The ABS project will address ways to improve sorghum though
biotechnology. Research will focus on improving digestibility plus
drought and insect tolerance. Scientists will also work to increase
micronutrients like iron and zinc, vitamins A and E, protein and
essential amino acids in the grain. A prototype containing increased
levels of the amino acid lysine has already been successfully
Pioneer Hi-Bred donated the initial technology for the project. The
donation, valued at $4.8 million, included intellectual property
rights, materials and know-how for creating sorghum with improved
nutritional value for human consumption, according to a June release
from the company. The transgenic sorghum results in grain with a 50%
increase in lysine compared with traditional sorghum. Lysine is an
essential amino acid that is a component of protein
Africa Harvest will partner with Pioneer and the Council for
Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. Other members of
the consortium include FARA, the African Agricultural Technology
Foundation, the International Crops Research Institute for the
Semi-Arid Tropics, and the Universities of Pretoria, South Africa and
Missouri-Columbia in the U.S.
Dr. Monty Jones, Executive Secretary of the Forum for Agricultural
Research in Africa (FARA) and the winner of the World Food Prize in
2004 for his work with improved rice, eventually will be involved in
increasing distribution of the fortified sorghum.
The World Food Prize is an annual award of $250,000 to a person who
has improved the quality, quantity or availability of food in the
world. This year's award will be presented to the leader of the "Blue
Revolution," Dr. Modadugu Vijay Gupta, on Thursday in Des Moines for
his work to increase freshwater aquaculture in underdeveloped rural
areas - from Bangladesh to the Mekong Basin countries
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global
Health aims to increase scientific discoveries that can help combat
fatal diseases in developing countries.