Should We Genetically Engineer African O

June 18 [Tue], 2013, 6:07
The images that come to mind when you read the words African orphan are of distended bellies, scrawny legs, and fly-covered faces. From TV spots asking for donations to feed hungry, parentless children to the high-profile adoptions of African orphans by the likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie, the phrase has a well-defined place in American culture.

In rooms where corporate philanthropists brainstorm solutions for the continents problems, another use of the term is batted around: African orphan crops. Its a phrase that refers to a group of staple foodsfoods that help to feed more than one billion Africansthat the international community deems neglected or orphaned because they are not economically important on the global market.

That definition comes from a recent press release from Mars, Incorporateds , which announced that it plans to release the genome sequencing of 100 such crops to the public. AOCC hopes that the open-source genetic data will lead to higher nutritional content for society over the decades to come, thanks to plant scientists, breeders and farmers working with the genetic information and resulting hybrid and transgene plant varieties.

The globalization of agriculture, particularly as it relates to similar efforts to plant GE crops in developing nations, has led to cries of neocolonialism from some corners. In countries like Mexico, where corn was first domesticated and continues to be fundamental to sustenance farmers,are caught up in anxieties about not only individual livelihoods, but also regional economic struggles and national and ethnic identities tooits fraught stuff.

The AOCC efforts, unlike the situation in Mexico, are not strictly commercial, and Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars chief agriculture officer, is calling on the notoriously protective biotech industry to share information on the 100 orphan crops. In light of that request,asks the obvious question: Can the kings of agricultural intellectual-property technology get onboard with open source agricultural information for Africa?

As criticisms of GMOs go, the economic argument is one of the most compellingand it is thoroughly substantiated too. In the United States, the cost of planting a single acre of soybean has risen 325 percnt between 1995 and 2011, according to the . If sustenance farmers are compelled to buy into the seed-licensing model that patented GMO crops necessitate, how will they afford to plant the crops they depend upon to survive? Crops developed specifically with the dietary concerns of the developing world in mind, like , have attempted to sidestep that issue by subsidizing the licensing fees for farmers in Southeast Asia with money paid by growers in developed countries. For some, this more altruistic model, which is a far cry from the , is far more palatable.

But orphan crops? AOCC references marula, Ethiopian mustard, baobab, African eggplant, egusi, amaranth, bananas and moringa as a few of its crops targeted for improvement, which, sure, were largely unfamiliar with. But is it fair to say that theyve been so thoroughly neglected by the global markets that they should be deemed orphans? Certainly not in the case of bananas. If youre of the mind that genetic engineering is the key to solving hunger problems in Africa, plant scientists in Uganda are already working on disease-resistant transgene variety, as thereported in 2008.

A more thorough list of orphan crops fromfeatures far less obscure plants, including peanuts, quinoa and sorghum; the latter is the dietary staple of more than 500 million people around the world. And, thinking in the terms of groups like AOCC, DuPont has already developed and patented a transgene variety with improved nutritional valuesa variety the chemical company donated to the African Biofortified Sorghum initiative.

The poor soil, draught, low yields, vitamin deficiencies and other agriculture and dietary concerns that are common throughout Africa are issues of undeniable importance. Addressing them in a manner that doesnt smack of paternalismwhite, American philanthropists as adoptive parents of African agricultureat best, and neocolonialism at worst would be a far better way to debate the solutions, whether they involve GMOs or not.