Hungry African nations balk at biotech cassava (30/8/2005)

The institution at the centre of this article -the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center - is Monsanto's mission to the developing world.

The Center sits on a 40-acre tract of land, near Monsanto's home town of St. Louis, donated by Monsanto and valued at over $10million. It was launched with a financial pledge from Monsanto for a further $70m.

The Donald Danforth's man in Africa says, "It's too important what we're trying to do. If we give up, who's going to do it?" he asked.

Good question. Monsanto via USAID already brought Africa the "virus-resistant" GM sweet potato that wasted millions of dollars to no effect while providing no virus resistance. Meanwhile a highly effective non-GM virus resistant sweet potato was developed in Uganda for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Hungry African nations balk at biotech cassava
By Eric Hand
St Louis Today

[image caption: Lawrence Kent of the Danforth Plant Science Center. Kent is their liaison with Africa.]

The pictures coming from Niger say that millions are starving in Africa.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center says it can feed the continent with cassava, a potato-like crop that a virus has decimated.

The center, in Creve Coeur, has leafy, virus-resistant plants ready to give away. But no one in Africa is taking them. Field test approvals are stalled in Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria.

The politics of biotechnology in Africa are as thorny as ever. So even as the nonprofit Danforth Center churns out technology that's free, it needs a salesman: Lawrence Kent, the nonscientist director of international programs.

Last week, Kent arrived early in the morning at an empty Danforth Center. In his office, he pressed a telephone to his left ear and dialed a number for Kenya, a country in a time zone eight hours ahead.

"Do we have any news at all? Well, give it to me straight," he said, sitting straight-backed. He speaks carefully, politely. His wire-rim glasses and mussed hair give him an earnest, boyish quality.

"Oh, boy. That's too bad," he said, shoulders slumping. "We can't afford to get discouraged and frustrated. ... They've gotten cold feet, it seems like, really."

Kenyan officials have put off approving a cassava field test until a meeting next month.

Fluent in French and Arabic, Kent began his career in the Peace Corps in Mauritania. There, he lived in a mud hut, coped with diarrhea and watched as two children in his host family died. Now, he spends a third of his time jetting to African capitals, one suitcase full of suits, another full of forms, studies and pamphlets.

He has a difficult task. Only one country - South Africa - has commercialized biotech crops. Five others have allowed field tests before, but of the three in which Kent is pushing for cassava, only Kenya has previous experience. And every time he describes the benefits of biotech to a government official, he knows he has counterparts who warn of biotech's dangers.

"The other side only has to sow confusion and fear to reach a stalemate," he said. He feels a sense of urgency. If the cassava field test isn't approved in the next few weeks, the center will miss its chance for one of two annual planting seasons.

"One delay could mean that a million people are going to be hungry for six months. Then I think, this is serious and we have to fight to make it happen," he said.

Doreen Stabinsky has been fighting to make biotech not happen. The Greenpeace geneticist says the debate over biotech is separate from the issue of hunger, which is more about access.

"Hunger is not solved by producing more food," she said. "We're the breadbasket of the world, and we have hungry people in the U.S.," she argues.

African nations will continue to procrastinate on biotech, both to be cautious and to enjoy the benefits of playing a pro-biotech U.S. off an anti-biotech Europe, said Mariam Mayet, a South African attorney and director of the African Centre for Biosafety, which wants strict biotech laws, including bans. She says current images of starvation are public relations tools for biotech proponents: The latest biotech crops seem like a miracle, and anti-biotech groups become the bad guys responsible for the hunger.

"Cassava is a poor person's crop. One can understand why they want to pursue this crop. They're desperate to have a success story," she said.

Cassava was a success story before a viral epidemic hit in the 1990s, said Danforth Center scientist Claude Fauquet.

"Then it was like a forest. Wow," he says, reaching up to describe the cassava that then grew 10 feet tall or higher. Now, the cassava mosaic virus has reached a 100 percent infection rate in some central African nations, withering leaves and stunting the growth of the starchy root.

The virus spreads via whitefly bites - and also the plant itself. After farmers pull up the plant stalk and harvest the roots, they cut the stalk into pieces and replant them. The disease stays with the cuttings.

In spite of the disease, cassava is Africa's biggest crop - perhaps because it's so easy to grow. Called yucca or tapioca in South America, the plant grows well in poor soils, with a little or a lot of water. The root, harvested twice a year, can be boiled like a potato or ground into a flour.

Africans grew 108 million metric tons of it last year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That's 2.5 times as much as the next biggest crop, corn, at 43 million metric tons.

A 2003 study suggests that the cassava crop could be much larger - the virus reduced yields across Africa by 30 percent to 40 percent and caused losses as high as $2.7 billion.

For individual farmers, that money could make a huge difference, Kent said. It could go toward milk, anti-malarial drugs or school fees, he said.

Fauquet has cassava plants surging in spite of their viral infections. Analogous to a

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