Wambugu wambuzling again says GM sweet potato a resounding success (18/3/2004)

Here's a funny thing. Back in January a Kenyan newspaper reported that three year trials to test the GM sweet potato developed by Monsanto with the support of USAID, ISAAA and the the World Bank, had shown it to be a failure and that it had even been outperformed by conventional sweet potatoes. The project's failure was also prominently reported in New Scientist, and it has also been referred to in other articles, including one in The Guardian.

Now, two months after the original piece appeared, up pops the Kenyan scientist, Florence Wambugu, who was recruited by Monsanto and USAID to front the project, claiming that far from being a complete dud as reported, "the GM sweet potato has been a resounding scientific success"!

In her press release and statement Wambugu makes no reference to the New Scientist piece but instead attributes criticism of the project to "what anti-GM activists are saying". As neither the Kenyan paper, the New Scientist nor The Guardian appears to have been asked to publish corrections, or even to have received letters disputing their reports, it is reasonable to ask where on earth the normally highly vocal Dr Wambugu, ISAAA and Monsanto have been for the last two months.

We checked with the journalist who wrote the New Scientist piece that nobody had contacted them to say the story was wrong. He also told us that he reeived no reply from Dr Wambugu to his request for a comment prior to publication.

Perhaps this has been a case of alien abduction? Obviously, it couldn't be that it has taken two months for Dr Wambugu to come up with this story??!!!

According to Wambugu's story, the 3 years of field trials weren't really testing the GM sweet potato, they were just a way of testing the extent of the problems faced at a very early stage in the project.

This is also extremely curious because it was originally said a finished GM sweet potato would be available in 2002!!

This may in fact be the very first time that Wambugu has made any attempt to correct a "misleading" report about the GM sweet potato. When for instance, the Toronto Globe & Mail reported in July 2003that, 'Dr. Wambugu's modified sweet potato... can increase yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes', Wambugu, far from pointing out that it couldn't because it was only at a very early stage in the project, appears to have been the soure of the information. Nor for that matter did she point out that according to the FAO and Kenyan national statistics typical yields for non-GM sweet potatoes are not 4 tonnes but about 10 tonnes! Acccording to Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Devlopment Studies misleadingly low figures on average yields in Kenya have been used "to paint a picture of stagnation".

The GM sweet potatoes, by contrast, have been presented by Wambugu as an agricultural revolution in Africa. To quote an article in Forbes magazine, 'While the West debates the ethics of GM food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country.' (MILLIONS SERVED; FLORENCE WAMBUGU FEEDS HER COUNTRY WITH FOOD OTHERS HAVE THE LUXURY TO AVOID, December 23, 2002)

The implication of the article was that this trial technology was atually already benefiting the people of Kenya. The article reported that the results were 'astonishing': 'The sweet potato is sub-Saharan Africa's first genetically modified crop, and its yields so far are double that of the regular plant. Potatoes are bigger and richer in color , indicating they've retained more nutritional value.' (emphasis added) For hungry Africa, we were told, 'Wambugu's modified sweet potato offers tangible hope.' Sadly, it appears to offer very little hope of hungry Africa, or anyone else, being told the truth.

Here's the New Scientist report followed by Wambugu's claims. Note how she defends the project in terms of the training of Kenyan scientists in biotechnology transformation methods and bio-safety testing, it's helping establish a regulatory system etc. As Aaron deGrassi has pointed out, "such discipline-specific capacity building in biotechnology may produce a 'lock-in' effect diverting resources from other potentially productive issues and methods". And that, of course, is precisely the intention.

Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails
New Scientist, Vol 181 No. 2433, 7 February 2004

A showcase project to develop a genetically modified crop for Africa has failed.

Three years of field trials have shown that GM sweet potatoes modified to resist a virus were no less vulnerable than ordinary varieties, and sometimes their yield was lower, according to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

Embarrassingly, in Uganda conventional breeding has produced a high-yielding variety more quickly and more cheaply.

The GM project has cost Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government an estimated $6 million over the past decade.  It has been held up worldwide as an example of how GM crops will help revolutionise farming in Africa.  One of the project members, Kenyan biotechnologist Florence Wambugu (see New Scientist, 27 May 2000, p 40), toured the world promoting the work.

Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, says the researchers went wrong by concentrating on resistance to an American strain of the virus.  In any case, the virus is only a small factor limiting production in Kenya, he says. "There was too much rhetoric and not enough good research."

Monsanto says it plans to develop further varieties.

The World's No.1 Science & Technology Magazine

Kenyan Genetic Scientist Defends GM Sweet Potato

Chief Executive Officer of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, Dr. Florence Wambugu, says recent allegations that trials to develop GM virus-resistant sweet potato had failed were not based in sound science.

"Recent reports alleging that imported transgenic material did not withstand virus challenge in the Kenyan fields (DN 29th January, 2004) have completely been misinterpreted and distorted.  Critics of GM technologies have cited the "findings" as proof that the GM sweet potato project was a failure," Dr. Wambugu --  the first scientist to be involved in the project -- says. "Contrary to what anti-GM activists are saying, in several articles published globally, the GM sweet potato has been a resounding scientific success and Kenyans should be proud of this".

Dr. Wambugu -- who founded an international foundation, which has offices in Washington D.C., in Nairobi and Kenya - explained that "typically, the first generation products are not intended for commercialization".  She said "the GM sweet potato variety being tested in Kenya was meant to develop a genetic transformation system which did not exist globally.  It contained a reporter Gus gene which is a 'tell-tale' gene commonly used to indicate to scientists whether a plant is indeed transformed. Reporter genes like the Gus gene are not included in final gene products and are out-bred once the final product has been established."

"The sweet potato variety produced in Kenya's was the first generation product developed for the system and it takes several generations to come up with the final commercial product," says the Africa Harvest CEO.  "The recent field trials were meant to identify the level of protection needed for the final product in Kenya.  The purpose of the field trials was also to shed some light on how to improve the system used to transform the sweet potato.  The "failure" - as it has been incorrectly implied - was to indicate the extent to which sweet potatoes are vulnerable to disease in the region. This in turn highlights the extent to which the final sweet potato product needs viral protection", says the scientist.

The Africa Harvest CEO said that "in anticipation to the result of the field trials, scientists working on the GM sweet potato had already begun Research and Development (R&D) on a second generation product which includes a gene construct from the most virulent Kenyan potato virus strain".  She said the Muguga virus strain was identified after extensive screening.

"Future R&D is expected to produce a second generation GM sweet potato variety that is equipped with double protection. The protective feature of this GM variety will have both the Cp gene and its replicase gene which has the special ability to prevent the sweet potato feathery mottle virus  (SPFMV) from replicating upon infection, thereby rendering the virus harmless".  The scientist said "a cloning site to the gene construct had been made, which will make it much easier for scientists to add the gene that gives it resistance to weevils, if and when this is discovered.  The final GM sweet potato product will therefore be tailor made for African environmental conditions".

Although Dr. Wambugu is no longer directly involved with the GM sweet potato project, she says that it had achieved all its goals, including the development of a global commercial genetic transformation system. "Being the first GM crop variety in Sub-Saharan Africa, the pioneering nature of the project demanded adherence to strict international standards. The trials were carried out after close consultation and in close collaboration with the very rural communities that will benefit from the final product," says Dr. Wambugu.

The scientist said many Kenyan scientists had been trained under the project.  "It is this human capacity that has enabled the country define its nature of support to the GM technology.  Kenyan scientists have been at the forefront of advocating for a Kenya-specific policy.  We support the technology – not as a silver-bullet, but alongside other agricultural interventions -- that will address our unique problems of improving and increasing productivity of local crops".

Dr. Wambugu also said that under the project, Kenya now has a bio-transformation lab where other crops -- other than the sweet potato -- can be researched in future.  "The lab puts Kenya in a position to form vital collaborations with countries such as South Africa which may be conducting related scientific work.  The country is also a beacon of light in the region with regard to biosafety and GM technologies," she noted.

"Organizations such as Kenya plant Health Inspection services (KEPHIS) have developed relevant expertise and experience out of the GM sweet potato project". KEPHIS monitors all field trials, collects and analyses data to ensure compliance with internationally accepted standards.

The project also enables Kenya and the region to benefit from relevant scientific collaborations.  "Without the bio-transformation lab, North-South collaborations would be one-sided, perpetuating the current science and technology dependency.  South-South collaborations would be virtually impossible," said Dr. Wambugu.

For full statement visit Africa Harvest web site at www.ahbfi.org

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