GM-for-Africa project "homegrown in Des Moines, Iowa (31/10/2005)

Interesting how the Bill Gates-backed GM sorghum project is being spun for different audiences.

According to Florence Wambugu, who heads the CropLife International-backed 'Africa Harvest' lobby group that's fronting the project, this is "absolutely an African driven project" and nothing to do with "foreign companies introducing technology that may not be appropriate to Africa".

That at least is what Wambugu told Reuters in Johannesburg. But in the US, the Des Moines Register reports that the project is getting off the ground with not only the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but with the help of the DuPont-owned subsidiary Pioneer's "crop seed expertise and vast plant genetic resources".

And it doesn't stop there. Pioneer, the Register reports, is providing sorghum germ plasm, intellectual property rights "and the expertise to make sorghum more nutritional - a contribution valued at $4.8 million". It's also apparent from this article that Pioneer is training "Africans at its worldwide research headquarters in Johnston as part of the effort"

If the combination of all these different elements seems to add up essentially to a DuPont project fronted by Africans, then it would hardly be a first. The Kenyan GM sweet potato project with which Wambugu was previously so associated was often presented within Africa, and beyond, as a Kenyan project initiated by Wambugu and run by KARI - the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI). In reality, however, the project had been conceived by two senior Monsanto scientists and Joel Cohen of USAID. It was these three Americans who recruited Wambugu, who had only just completed her doctoral thesis at the time, to front their project. They then trained her up, using USAID money to pay for her training at Monsanto. And Monsanto then donated the technology to KARI.

One of the three men involved - Robert Horsch - has said that his role at Monsanto is to "create goodwill and help open future markets". In fact, the project went a lonmg way to doing this, generating thousands of column inches of superb PR for GM until it eventually leaked out in January of last year that the Kenyan trials had shown the GM sweet potato to be an utter failure (Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails, New Scientist, Vol 181 No. 2433, 7 February 2004)

But guess what? Wambugu now has a new PR winning GM-for-Africa project to take its place centre stage. And while it seems to be pretty much the formula as before, there's clearly been some PR tweaking to keep the GM giant much further in the background - something which will also have looked good when it came to the funding application.

The rationale is apparent from the angle of Wambugu's comments to Reuters in Joburg. Reuters reported that the resistance to GM "has been against foreign companies" and that in Wambugu's view, "GM crops are expected to gain wider acceptance in Africa as more homegrown projects emerge that will spread benefits among the poor".

This particular project seems to have been "homegrown" in Des Moines, Iowa. But if you read the Reuters piece out of Joburg, there is not even a mention of Pioneer or DuPont.

For more on Wambugu's spin doctoring see her Pants on Fire award:

and her 'smoke 'n' mirrors' biotech banana project:

Scientists work to improve sorghum for humans
Des Moines Register, October 29, 2005

By the end of their first week at work on the research campus of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Johnston, the two visiting African scientists already had tried an alternative way to genetically engineer crops. They used agrobacterium to insert DNA into plant cells, rather than particle bombardment, the technique they had used in South Africa to transform plants

It was very, very quick," Grootboom said of the technology. "It was very exciting."

Mehlo and Grootboom are the first African scientists to travel to Pioneer to begin work on a multi-year collaboration between the plant genetics giant and partners in Africa to engineer sorghum, a grain grown in arid regions that is a staple for hundreds of millions of people in Africa and in other parts of the world. The goal: Make sorghum more nutritious and more easily digestible by humans.

Malnutrition and hunger are chronic problems in parts of Africa, where much of the soil is poor. Sorghum is one crop that can grow there.

"Its the only crop that can give significant yields in soil like that," Mehlo said. "When all other crops fail, it will succeed."

The project is getting off the ground with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Des Moines company's crop seed expertise and vast plant genetic resources. The foundation donated a $16.9 million, five-year grant to the project.

DuPont-owned Pioneer has donated intellectual property rights, sorghum germ plasm and the expertise to make sorghum more nutritional - a contribution valued at $4.8 million. The company also has offered to train Africans at its worldwide research headquarters in Johnston as part of the effort.

Sorghum is used in Africa to make cakes, beer and porridge, as well as for livestock feed. It is deficient in several key nutritional elements, including zinc, iron, vitamin A, amino acids and protein, Mehlo said while he and his colleague took a break from work in a special laboratory set up for their sorghum research at Pioneer.

Pioneer's fortified sorghum contains 50 p

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