Gates gets Wambugu-ed! / Golden rice study gets Gates boost (15/10/2003)

"Genetic engineering is a risky, expensive technology. They know that countries are going to reject it. Why spend the money?" - Doreen Stabinsky, scientist at Greenpeace USA (item 2)

1.Gates gets Wambugu-ed!
2.Golden rice study gets Gates boost
1.Gates gets Wambugu-ed! - GMWatch

Last year Dr. Florence Wambugu was appointed to the Science Board of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative.

Dr Wambugu is a DuPont Biotech Advisory Panelist, a two-times Monsanto Company Outstanding Performance Award winner, author and publisher of the book "Modifying Africa" and Chief Executive Director of A Harvest Biotech Foundation International. Dr Wambugu has also been called "an apostle of Monsanto in Africa". She was picked and trained by Monsanto and came to fame via Monsanto's virus-resistant sweet potato project.

Wambugu built her reputation on this project, capturing massive positive publicity for GM in the process. But Wambugu's reputation is built on a lie. The project in question has been very far from the success that is repeatedly claimed.

As Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, reveals in his analysis of the project, claims of big improvements in yield appear to be based on massively understating the yield of the conventional sweet potato crop in Kenya. And the project has been completely outclassed by conventional breeding and better ecological management which have produced far greater improvements in yields at a fraction of the cost of the Wambugu project.

"The sweet potato project is now nearing its twelfth year, and involves over 19 scientists ... and an estimated $6 million. In contrast, conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able in just a few years to develop with a small budget a well-liked virus-resistant variety with yield gains of nearly 100%." The best improvement the GM sweet potato can produce - and there is some doubt as to whether the project has even achieved this - is 18%. The reason for doubt? "At the farm level, there is currently no evidence about the performance of transgenic sweet potatoes. The most recent account, published in January of this year, makes no mention of the state of the trials. KARI researchers have refused to state how the trials, now in their third year, have performed."

But while the reality of Wambugu's work appears to have been a waste of resources, it has been a colossal triumph in PR terms. Do a google search on "sweet potato + wambugu" and you'll find around 500 different items, many major articles reporting Wambugu's "life-saving" work from the world's media. In them Wambugu preaches the Monsanto gospel that GM crops are the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World. Her statements are largely met with the very opposite of critical scrutiny, as journalist Rankin McKay has noted,

"is it too cynical to suggest that having a black African as the face of a multinational chemical company is a spin doctor's dream? This seems to have lobotomised some journalists who have treated her views like the tablets from the Mount. Even the normally rigorous Jon Faine interviewed her in a way that was almost fawning." (GM science can be blinding)

In the Dec. 5, 2001 issue of Forbes magazine, Wambugu was named as one of 15 people from around the world who will "reinvent the future."

As deGrassi notes, the tragedy is that this kind of "excitement over certain genetic engineering procedures can divert financial, human, and intellectual resources from focusing on productive research that meets the needs of poor farmers."

Aaron diGrassi, June 2003. Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable
Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Third World Network, Africa.
Golden rice study gets Gates boost
The Star Ledger, Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Star-Ledger Staff

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $25 million to an international effort to combat malnutrition, including research on a controversial crop known as golden rice.

The grant will support an effort dubbed HarvestPlus, a global research initiative to breed and disseminate new kinds of crops. Additional funding from the World Bank, Denmark and from the U.S. Aid for International Development will bring the total funding for the project to $45 million.

The work will be spearheaded by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., and the International Center for Tropical Agricultural Research in Cali, Colombia.

About 80 percent to 85 percent of the funds will go toward supporting work on crops produced through classical breeding processes, according to Howarth Bouis, an economist who will head up HarvestPlus. These will emphasize a technique known as biofortification in which higher levels of micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A are produced in plants through hybrid techniques.

"Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which contribute to the deaths of millions of children each year, can be easily prevented by adding just a few key nutrients to staple foods," said David Fleming, director of global health strategies at the Gates Foundation.

The remainder of the funds will support "exploratory" research on transgenic crops, Bouis said.

That will include research by scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines on golden rice. The experimental crop, a strain of rice spliced with two daffodil genes and a bacterium gene, was developed by European scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in 1999.

Scientists continuing to pursue the technology have had difficulty getting stable funding because of opposition to genetically engineered crops in Europe and the developing world. They have been working on ways to boost beta carotene levels in the rice kernels and on cross-breeding it with higher-yielding varieties.

International nongovernmental organizations have been steadfast in their opposition to genetically engineered crops such as golden rice, especially for the developing world. They fear there will be adverse environmental impacts in places lacking adequate regulatory structures. Though golden rice seeds will be given away for free, the activists worry that transnational corporations will own the intellectual property rights to other such seeds and will ultimately charge exorbitant rates for them.

"Genetic engineering is a risky, expensive technology," said Doreen Stabinsky, a scientist at Greenpeace USA. "They know that countries are going to reject it. Why spend the money?"

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