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Africa seeks bioengineered solutions to food crisis

Africa seeks bioengineered food solutions to nutrition crisis

Super Staples: Africa seeks bioengineered food solutions
Tina Butler,
July 18, 2005

African scientists, in conjunction with research facilities in the United States, are working toward developing super strains of traditional nutritional staples in Africa. This project was stimulated in part by the Grand Challenges program, which seeks to tackle major problems associated with global health. The program has an operating budget of $500 million primarily from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed $450 million. The United Kingdom’s The Wellcome Trust and the Canadian government have also contributed, $27 million and $4.5 million, respectively to the program. This sum will be divided among 43 individual projects designed to address and ideally, conquer these problems.

Challenge #9 of the program is where the plan for genetically modified (GMO) staple food crops originated. The challenge calls for the development of a complete set of optimal, bioavailable nutrients in various primary plant species with the essential goal of improving nutrition to promote health by lessening hunger and malnourishment on a global level.

Yams, plantains, green bananas, sorghum and cassava are the essential staples in Africa. Cassava alone feeds 500 million people on a worldwide basis. Despite their standing, these crops are notoriously lacking in complete nutrition. As malnourished individuals have a higher incidence of illness due to weakened immune systems, this challenge promotes the creation of GMO strains of banana, cassava and rice among other major crops that possess a full set of vitamins and minerals. These new super crops will have nutrients bred into them.

One crop of particular importance and subsequent focus is sorghum. Currently, African scientists are engaged in the process of developing a GMO super strain of the staple grain that will be packed with vitamins in an attempt to temper the malnutrition that is rampant in large areas of the continent. South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) released an official statement about the undertaking: “The primary objective of the project is to produce seeds of nutritionally improved cultivars of sorghum, appropriate for planting, which African small-scale farmers can source on a license-free basis.” Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of Dupont, the University of Missouri-Columbia and CSIR will collaborate to develop the new strain.

Sorghum has long provided for native inhabitants as an indispensable food source. The grain is exceptionally hardy, thriving in the semi-arid conditions which dominate much of Africa. Non-indigenous crops like maize, which has replaced sorghum as the staple in some regions, are a constant struggle to cultivate due to their resistance to the climate and demand/require significantly more irrigation and water resources.

While perfectly suited to the climate, natural sorghum lacks sufficient nutrients to properly nourish consumers who use the plant as their primary food source. Those dependent on the grain for subsistence are at risk for developing a condition known as micronutrient malnutrition. The new sorghum will be enriched with higher levels of pro-vitamin A and E as well as iron, zinc and essential amino acids. This enhanced grain has the potential to alleviate one of Africa’s greatest problems, but getting countries to accept the super sorghum will not be without obstacles.

Biotech crops continue to incite controversy on a global level, with concerns about possible environmental detriment, such as the possible creation of equally super weeds and pests and also unknown side effects or health risks stemming from human consumption. Africa is not excluded in this sense of distrust/skepticism. Some countries in the continent have refused GMO food aid or insisted that such grains be milled prior to distribution to avoid contamination of local seed stores, even though local populations often have trouble growing sufficient food. Producers of GMO crops argue that enhanced strains will be more resistant to climatic stress, produce higher yields and help ensure that fewer people will go hungry. If scientists are successful in this endeavor, serious improvements could be made in the challenge to eliminate hunger. Whether or not governments and individuals will accept these enhanced staples remains unclear.

This article used information from The Economist, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and Reuters

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