|Regulatory red light fuels GM-research debate (10/8/2006)|
EXCERPT: "As with the GM sweet potato project, which was developed by Monsanto, brought to Africa in collaboration with Dr Wambugu, and was a spectacular failure in its objective of achieving virus-resistance, Wambugu is taking every opportunity to tout this new "Super Sorghum" project as Africa-driven, and to use it to convince the world that GM will solve hunger in Africa," continues Mayet, who explains that, even if the project comes to nothing, Wambugu and partners may still consider it to be a public-relations success.
Regulatory red light fuels GM-research debate
An application by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to conduct greenhouse experiments on transgenic sorghum in South Africa has been denied by the South African genetically-modified organisms (GMO) regulatory body.
According to NGO African Centre for Biosafety directorMariam Mayet, the South African GM regulatory body's executive council, established in terms of the South African GMO Act refused the application on biosafety grounds, fearing that GM sorghum will lead to thedestruction of sorghum varieties prevalent throughout Africa.
According to the national Department of Agriculture, the application for contained use, namely, experimentation with transgenic sorghum in greenhouse experiments, was refused because of the potential environmental impacts related to the species.
"Our interpretation is that a national policy decision musthave been taken by the decision-making body, called the Executive Council, in charge of decisions regarding genetic modification and genetic engineering, not to allow any genetic experimentation with crop plants or livestock for that matter, where any African country is either the centre of origin or diversity of such plants or animals, because of the inevitability of genetic contamination," adds Mayet.
CSIR Biosciences executive director Dr Gatsha Mazithulela says the organisation is under obligation from its mandate to do multidisciplinary research that is in the national interest and which contributes to the improvement of the quality of life of the people of the country.
All of its research is undertaken in support of national strategies.
Guided by these principles,the organisation has chosen to conduct biotechnology research, within the ambits established by government to oversee andregulate activities related to GM crops.
"The CSIR support these mechanisms and trusts that this process will strengthen andimprove South Africa's regulatorycapacity. The CSIR is working with the relevant authorities toaddress concerns related to the sorghum application," he says.
According to Mayet, the decision not to allow genetic experimentation with transgenic sorghum under contained-use conditions sends a very clear political message - that the South African government does not emphatically support the genetic modification of sorghum.
"This is extremely significant and we view this as a victory. The South African government's policy has been decidedly biased in favour of genetic modification of crop plants in food and agri-culture; allowing open field trials and commercial releases of several food crops, including maize, soya and potatoes. However, it has drawn the line with sorghum. This is unprecedented," says Mayet.
The R450-million African Biotechnology Sorghum (ABS) project, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, is aimed at improving nutrition to promote health as part of its Grand Challenge No 9, which focuses on improving nutrition levels of bananas, cassava, and rice and sorghum crops.
"The goal of these challenges is to create a full range of optimal, bioavailable nutrients in a single staple plant species," clarifies Mazithulela, who explains that all experimentation will beconducted in a controlled greenhouse that has the necessary measures to minimise any potential hazards to the environment.
Sorghum is consumed as astaple food in areas of Africa and, according to Mazithulela, the crop has certain inherent deficiencies.
"Consequently, the purpose of the project is to increase the levels of vitamins and the bio-availability of key nutrients by introducing the relevant genetic signals into sorghum, he explains.
Current sorghum varieties contain inadequate amounts of vital nutritional components of food and, when used as a staple food, the person is unlikely to receive the correct daily nutri-tional requirements.
Sorghum is also difficult to digest, thus it is difficult to absorb the nutritional components.
However, Mayet adds that despite years of research and the availability of GM crops in the world's markets and fields in countries such as the US, Canada and Argentina, there are currently no GMOs on the market that supplement people's diets or provide better nutrition.
"Indeed, despite all the hype, the GM industry has only been able to put on the market GM crops exhibiting two traits: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, the latter being dependant on the use of herbicides," she comments.
Mayet believes that it is "scandalous" for such a large injection of resources to be allocated to genetically engineer a traditionalfood crop originating in Africa, where there are much more pressing agricultural priorities on the continent.
Mazithulela explains that the CSIR's aim is to make a contribution to the multitude of agricultural and health problems faced by the continent.
"Surely the inadequate delivery of vitamins and some elements to 300-million people in Africa who use sorghum as a staple foodqualifies as a pressing healthconcern that can be addressedagriculturally," he points out.
According to him, this project is also an endeavour to build the continent's own capabilities as it involves African public research institutions.
Mayet, however, is unconvinced that GM crops are the panaceato the agricultural and health problems experienced by thecontinent.
Equitable access to land andresources such as water, access to markets, infrastructure support, investment in organic farming based on traditional crops, pro-tection of domestic markets from the onslaught of cheap globalised low-quality cereals comingespecially from the US, and the end of food-aid programmes are the first steps toward food security on the continent, she believes
"We need the political commitment of our governments to put in place, long-term sustainable food-security plans and strategies, that prioritise farmers and theenvironment. When a nation is food secure, it is secure," she emphasises, explaining that "techno-fixes" cannot address the problems of food security and malnutrition stemming from a deficient diet - after all it is rooted in more systemic problems, such as civil war, inequality and poor food-security policies.
As part of the project's aim to build capacity for GM in Africa, American money is used to bring African scientists to PioneerHi-Bred's laboratories in the US for training.
"As with the GM sweet potato project, which was developed by Monsanto, brought to Africa in collaboration with Dr Wambugu, and was a spectacular failure in its objective of achieving virus-resistance, Wambugu is taking every opportunity to tout this new "Super Sorghum" project as Africa-driven, and to use it to convince the world that GM will solve hunger in Africa," continues Mayet, who explains that, even if the project comes to nothing, Wambugu and partners may still consider it to be a public-relations success.
Mazithulela, however, clarifies the differences between the projects. The GM sweet potato carried an agronomic trait to enhance virus resistance whereas the sorghum project is aimed at developing a nutritionallyenhanced crop with humanhealth benefits.
"Obviously, in any scientificexperiment, there is a chance of failure. That is the reason for research - to find out what works and what does not," he stresses.
In addition, Mayet is concerned about the impact GM sorghum may have on traditional farming practices.
Not only have the natural varieties of sorghum been selected and bred by farmers in Africa for generations, but they also hold symbolic significance to culture, tradition and ways of life on the continent.
Genetically-engineered sorghum will, she believes, represent a serious threat to these systems.
However, Mazithulela explains that GM sorghum will not replace traditional varieties.
Instead, the application ofgenetically modified sorghum will be reserved for situations where limitations in conventional breeding are encountered.
"Generally speaking, conventional breeding will continue to play a significant role in cropimprovement. We do not believethat this transgenic sorghum will present a threat to traditionalfarmers and will not result in changes to traditional farming practices," he states.
To the CSIR and Mazithulela, biotechnology remains a powerful tool for addressing many of the continent's health and economic problems and this research project is part of their mandate to contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of the people of the republic of South Africa.
Regardless, a solution to the continent's issues of food security must be found, as millions of people in sub-Saharan Africasuffer from health problems associated with vitamin and mineral deficiency; however, arid climates with poor soils cannot supportthe food needed to supply these nutrients.
Poor nutrition is a significant global health problem, contri-buting to more than half of the nearly 11-million deaths that occur each year in children less than five years old.
It is estimated that half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa suffers from iron deficiency, a third from zinc deficiency and 90% of children in the regionreceive inadequate amounts of vitamin A.
Inadequate intake of these and other essential micronutrients can cause impaired immune systems, blindness, low birth weight, impaired neuropsychological development and stunting. Sorghum remains one of the few crops that grow well in arid climates, but it is deficient in most essential nutrients, as well as having poor protein digestibility when cooked.