Sunday, June 2, 2013

Africa: Best intentions not withstanding

The Guardian reports

Decoding 'orphan crop' genomes could save millions of lives in Africa

Howard-Yana Shapiro, a scientist with the Mars confectionery company, will make the information free to boost harvests



" The future wellbeing of millions of Africans may rest in the
 unlikely hands of a vegan hippy scientist working for a sweet
 company who plans to map and then give away the genetic 
data of 100 traditional crops."

Vegan hippy scientist's would normally be the absolute last people I would expect to come up with a great idea. 

Howard-Yana Shapiro, the agriculture director of the $36bn US confectionery corporation Mars, led a partnership that sequenced and then published in 2010 the complete genome of the cacao tree from which chocolate is derived. He plans to work with American and Chinese scientists to sequence and make publicly available the genetic makeup of a host of crops such as yam, finger millet, tef, groundnut, cassava and sweet potato.

I am sort of surprised to say the least. I have never met a Vegan as far as I know that even has passing acquaintance with sanity. Hippies I am slightly more relaxed about.  

Dubbed "orphan crops" because they have been ignored by scientists, seed companies and governments, they are staples for up to 250 million smallholder African farmers who depend on them for food security, nutrition and income. However, they are considered of little economic interest to large seed and chemical companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, which concentrate on global crops such as maize, rice and soya.

Well I suspect that they were of little interest,  Monsanto, Bayer etc will no doubt be rethinking their positions. The chance to enslave economically a further 250 million people would be of huge interest to them.  

According to Shapiro, there is huge potential to develop more resilient and higher-yielding varieties of most orphan crops by combining traditional plant breeding methods with new biotech tools such as "genetic marking". This does not involve the altering or insertion of genes that takes place with controversial genetic modification.

Which of course leads to the question what is " genetic marking " and on this occasion Google was not my friend but...
genetic marker - a specific gene that produces a recognizable trait and can be used in family or population studies "
So at a guess this aging hippy has figured out a way to pick winners in the seed population of crops. Sound great but it also would seem to be exactly what most if not all prudent small holders do already. If you have a high yielding plant then you select the seeds of that plant for future cultivation. 

"The genetic information will be put on the web and offered free to plant breeders, seed companies and farmers on condition it is not patented. A new African plant-breeding academy will also be set up in Nairobi, Kenya," he said.

OK I am starting to sound like a wet blanket but I am really failing to see any practical outcome for the average African farmer. I have far easier access to the web so I can probably get the information but what on earth would I do with it ?  The truth is for most of us this is  science fiction.

How is the information above going to help me grow better sweet potatoes ? 

"It's not charity. It's a gift. Its an improvement of African agriculture. These crops will never be worked on by the big five [seed] companies. They don't see them as competition."

Actually I doubt that but, that aside if they don't work on it who will ?

Shapiro, a leading plant scientist who founded organic seed company Seeds of Change but sold it to Mars in 1997, now cuts an idiosyncratic figure in the corporate food world, sporting a long beard and listing motorcycles as a favourite pastime. But he said that the culture of the family-owned corporation had advantages. "It took less than a nanosecond to decide not to patent. Ownership was not an issue," he said.

I can't argue with the idea that someone owning genetic material ( other than their own genetic material ) is a revolting concept. 
Genetic use restriction technology (GURT), colloquially known as terminator technology or suicide seeds, is the name given to proposed methods for restricting the use of genetically modified plants by causing second generation seeds to be sterile. The technology was developed under a cooperative research and development agreement between the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land company in the 1990s, but it is not yet commercially available.
Because some stakeholders expressed concerns that this technology might lead to dependence for small farmers, Monsanto Company, an agricultural products company and the world's biggest seed supplier, pledged not to commercialize the technology in 1999. Customers who buy patented transgenic seeds from Monsanto must sign a contract not to save or sell the seeds from their harvest, which preempts the need for a "terminator gene". The Delta and Pine Land Company, which had performed greenhouse tests of Terminator seeds and owned a Canadian patent on Terminator granted on October 11 2005, intended to commercialize the technology, but D&PL was acquired by Monsanto in 2007.

Shapiro is angered by the stunting caused by malnutrition that affects 30% of African children. By improving the crops, he said, the African orphan crop consortium, which includes corporations such as Life Technologies and the conservation group WWF, could eradicate a "plague" that costs Africa $125bn a year. "We will start with genomics, go to analysis, then to plant breeders, then to the field, then the seed companies, and then to the farms," he said.

Again we have this huge supply chain that is largely dependent on good will and external funding, I am not arguing that it is the wrong way to do it ( indeed it is probably the only way to do it )  but again I doubt it will have any real tangible benefit. It is also difficult to see the Africa Orphan Crop Consortium as the vehicle to achieve this. It looks more like a PR exercise on the part of Mars Corporation. 
Officially launched at the Clinton Global Initiative meetings in 2011, the AOCC is an international effort to improve the nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s most important food crops, helping to decrease the malnutrition and stunting rife among the continent’s rural children.

AOCC’s goal is to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 100 traditional African food crops, which would enable higher nutritional content for society over the decades to come. The resulting information will be put into the public domain, with the endorsement of the African Union.

Crops targeted for improvement

The focus crops are grown in all parts of Africa, but are referred to as “orphan crops” because, not being economically important on global markets, they have been largely ignored by researchers.


This includes, but is not limited to, crops like: Marula, Ethiopian mustard, Baobab, African eggplant, Egusi, Amaranth, Bananas (matoke), Moringa.

How will the AOCC improve these crops?
The AOCC will sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 100 neglected food crop species important to African farm family livelihoods and nutrition, a list chosen largely by African scientists. Early sequencing was carried out by the Beijing Genomic institute. The resulting data will not only be publically released, but will be worked on by researchers and breeders in Africa and elsewhere, and improved seeds will be provided to farmers all over Africa.
How will the AOCC get this information to farmers?
The AOCC created the African Plant Breeding Academy, which is establishing facilities at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and at a location in West Africa. The academy will train 250 plant breeding scientists and 500 technicians over five years.


Open-access publication of the cacao genome in 2010 is now bearing fruit. The genes that determine resistance to fungal infections and yield have been found and a new generation of cacao trees is being grown which should eventually quadruple production. "We haven't changed a single gene. It's inheritability. It's all done with grafting."

Would this have happened without Mars Corporations interest in a higher yielding  Cacao plant ?

But the "improved" seeds expected to come out of the $40m orphan programme could change Africa in unexpected ways. Nearly 80% of all seed used in Africa is selected, saved and exchanged by farmers without money changing hands. The result has been an immense diversity of crops suited to particular localities and cultures. The new, "improved" seeds of the orphan crops may increase yields or disease resistance but could be unaffordable and might oust traditional varieties. It is also possible that the genetic decoding could open the door to genetic modification.

Progress always has a price but who are we asking to take the risk and if necessary pay the price ? It is reasonable in a western context to expect those who expect to benefit to take the risk, but in an African context the price might well be starvation and death. What the hell is the point of doing this if at the end of the day the result even if fantastic is unaffordable ?

"Anything that keeps the [genetic] information out of proprietary hands is a good thing. But it's important to maintain the traditional varieties that have not been 'improved' and to keep a non-monetised path for the farming economy," said Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. "It's important to recognise improvements in crops are not just about genetics. How plants are managed is equally important."

Agreed.

Agricultural investment in Africa will be a key point at the G8 hunger summit in Northern Ireland next weekend. Governments and 45 of the largest agribusiness corporations are expected to unveil initiatives to boost African farming.
West and east African small farmers' groups have joined British charities to say that small-scale family farmers were being excluded from the talks even though they feed 80% of Africans. "It's very important that governments prioritise investment to support family farmers and their more ecological food production," said Patrick Mulvany, chair of the UK Food group.
"Technological advances in food production can be part of the solution to increase yields. But the world already grows enough food yet one in eight people go hungry every day. G8 leaders can begin to tackle the scandal of global hunger by closing the tax loopholes, improving land rights and increasing public investment in developing country agriculture," said Lucy Brinicombe, spokesperson for the If coalition of 200 groups which includes Oxfam and ActionAid.

There is an unavoidable truth we already can feed the world but we don't. There is enough but we don't care enough to do anything about that. Good on Howard-Yana, he is at least attempting to bring something new to the table but humanity has a long way to go yet.


Midnight Oil " Warakurna"

" Black man has a lot to fear "   


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