Biotechnology in Africa

biotechnologyI have never really been hungry. Sure, I’ve had occasions when I could hardly wait to wolf down a slice of pizza or a serving of veggie goulash and I’ll admit to looking forward eagerly to the end of the traditional Yom Kippur fast. But frankly, it isn’t very hard to fast for twenty four hours if you’ve filled your stomach with matzoh ball soup and roast chicken. And the hunger pangs aren’t too bothersome when you know that a superb stuffed cabbage waits to stuff you. I suspect that most of you reading this piece have never felt real hunger either. Sure, we know hunger exists. We’ve read that five thousand Africans die every day from a simple lack of food, and millions of others have diets that are totally inadequate to maintain health. These numbers may shock us, they may linger in our minds for a few minutes, but then they are squeezed out by our “real concerns.” How many times a week can we eat canned tuna? Should we peel our fruits and vegetables for fear of pesticide contamination? Should ice cream be labeled as a genetically modified food if it contains an emulsifier derived from corn that has been genetically altered to protect itself from pests?

Dr. Florence Wambugu finds these worries curious. Sometimes she is down-right angered by them. You see, Dr. Wambugu knows hunger. She has experienced it personally and sees it around her constantly. Recently I had a chance to interview this remarkable woman on CJAD and experience her passion about using biotechnology to feed the hungry. Dr. Wambugu puts issues in perspective very quickly. “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods,” she quips, but then quickly adds “but can we please eat first?” And if Florence Wambugu is allowed to pursue her efforts to improve crop yields through biotechnology in Africa, she may help make that question redundant.

As a child in Kenya, Florence Wambugu would never have dreamed that one day Forbes Magazine would label her as one of the fifteen people alive today “most likely to change the world.” But that is just what happened in 2002. And it was all made possible by a cow. More specifically, by the only cow Florence’s family owned. Young Florence worked in the fields with her mother trying to raise crops to feed a hungry family of ten children but their efforts were often stymied by plant diseases and ravenous insects. The mixtures of ashes and soot they used to ward off pests just didn’t work. But Florence’s mind did. Even at that young age she was inquisitive and bent on improving crop yields. Her mother, seeing the dedication, did the unthinkable. She sold the family cow so that Florence could go to secondary school. A highly unusual move in Kenya at the time, but, as it turned out, a great investment.

Florence eventually graduated from the University of Nairobi and went on to earn a master’s degree in plant pathology in the U.S. and a Ph.D. in England. Her research always focussed on ways to improve the lot of the African farmer and her efforts were brought to fruition when she received a fellowship from the U.S. department of Agriculture to work with Monsanto scientists in St. Louis. Dr. Wambugu had always been interested in the sweet potato. After all, this was the crop her family grew. It is resistant to drought and is filling and nutritious. But it is also very susceptible to attack by worms and the feathery mottle virus. African yields of sweet potato, as is the case with many crops, are the lowest in the world, partly because there is no winter freeze to kill off pests. Florence spent years trying to cross-breed heartier varieties of sweet potato with little success. Then in St. Louis she began to take a different tack. Chrysanthemums are known to produce chemicals called pyrethrins, which are among the most effective natural pesticides known. Why not take the gene that codes for the production of these chemicals from a chrysanthemum and splice it into the DNA of a sweet potato? After all, Monsanto scientists had worked out a number of such gene splicing techniques.

Although inserting a gene into a plant is now relatively routine, it doesn’t happen overnight. Florence Wambugu worked for years to isolate and insert the appropriate gene and then tested the modified sweet potato in an isolated green house for two years. Finally, she received approval from the Kenyan government to begin limited field trials. These will go on for years to ensure that all aspects of growing the modified sweet potato have been well studied, but the results so far are everything that was hoped for. Yields have doubled and the potatoes are richer in beta-carotene, an important antioxidant. So far, the fields have not been ravaged by anti-biotech activists who (on a full stomach) often rip up such crops, claiming that they have been inadequately tested. The activists have, however, launched massive publicity campaigns to “inform” Africans about the “risks” of genetically modified foods. This has had some remarkable effects, including scaring some farmers away from any new technology.

A good example is tissue culture which Dr. Wambugu helped develop. It involves taking tissue from a healthy plant and growing it in a sterile environment before planting the resulting seedlings in the field. In the case of bananas, this greatly lessens the risk of attack by fungi and bacteria, increases yields and reduces the need to clear virgin land for farming. Tissue culture has nothing to do with genetic modification but some farmers don’t want to buy the seedlings because they have been warned by activists about the dangers of biotechnology. Perhaps even more disturbing is the comment made by Zambia’s High Commissioner to the UK. When he was asked why in the face of massive starvation his country would not allow the U.S. to donate genetically modified corn, a crop that has been an integral part of the American food supply for years, he replied that “the fact that the people are starving doesn’t mean that we should allow them to eat what they don’t know.” Stuns the mind. But doesn’t do much for African hunger.


Joe Schwarcz

One response to “Biotechnology in Africa”

  1. Wambui says:

    She is an inspiration to young women at home. Thank you Joe.

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