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2-Plants: Hungry African nations balk at biotech cassava

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Hungry African nations balk at biotech cassava
SOURCE: Saint Louis post-Dispatch, USA, by Eric Hand
DATE:   28 Aug 2005

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Hungry African nations balk at biotech cassava

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

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 vaccine, he gives the plants immunity by inserting viral
DNA into the cassava as an extra gene. But this has happened in Danforth
Center greenhouses, not African fields.

Last year, several Malawian scientists came to the Danforth Center and
left with a cassava field test application ready, but so far, nothing has
been submitted to the national biosafety committee, Kent said.

The Danforth Center took a different tack with Nigeria, bringing the
entire biosafety committee to Missouri last year to show them biotech
crops. The committee has since postponed several meetings and asked for
money needed to convene a meeting, Kent said.

Kent is still hopeful for Kenya, which approved a screenhouse study last
year. Officials have asked the Danforth Center to pay for guards at the
field trial site, an official inspection of the site and an insect study.

Kent was in Kenya at the beginning of this month, surrounded by bug parts
and the smell of formaldehyde as he helped a Kenyan entomologist prepare
the insect study in his hotel room.

"It's too important what we're trying to do. If we give up, who's going
to do it?" he asked.


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