Should We Genetically Engineer African Orphans?

Mars plans to make the gene sequences of 100 ‘neglected’ staple crops available to the public.

 Row after row of orphans sorghum. (Photo: David Sucsy/Getty Images)

May 23, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The images that come to mind when you read the words “African orphan” are of distended bellies, scrawny legs, and fly-covered faces. From TV spots asking for donations to feed hungry, parentless children to the high-profile adoptions of African orphans by the likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie, the phrase has a well-defined place in American culture.

In rooms where corporate philanthropists brainstorm solutions for the continent’s problems, another use of the term is batted around: African orphan crops. It’s a phrase that refers to a group of staple foods—foods that help to feed more than one billion Africans—that the international community deems neglected or orphaned “because they are not economically important on the global market.”

That definition comes from a recent press release from Mars, Incorporated’s African Orphan Crop Consortium, which announced that it plans to release the genome sequencing of 100 such crops to the public. AOCC hopes that the open-source genetic data will lead to “higher nutritional content for society over the decades to come,” thanks to plant scientists, breeders and farmers working with the genetic information and resulting hybrid and transgene plant varieties.

The globalization of agriculture, particularly as it relates to similar efforts to plant GE crops in developing nations, has led to cries of neocolonialism from some corners. In countries like Mexico, where corn was first domesticated and continues to be fundamental to sustenance farmers, protests against GMO crops are caught up in anxieties about not only individual livelihoods, but also regional economic struggles and national and ethnic identities too—it’s fraught stuff.

The AOCC efforts, unlike the situation in Mexico, are not strictly commercial, and Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars’ chief agriculture officer, is calling on the notoriously protective biotech industry to share information on the 100 “orphan” crops. In light of that request, NPR asks the obvious question: “Can the kings of agricultural intellectual-property technology get onboard with open source agricultural information for Africa?”

As criticisms of GMOs go, the economic argument is one of the most compelling—and it is thoroughly substantiated too. In the United States, the cost of planting a single acre of soybean has risen 325 percnt between 1995 and 2011, according to the Center for Food Safety. If sustenance farmers are compelled to buy into the seed-licensing model that patented GMO crops necessitate, how will they afford to plant the crops they depend upon to survive? Crops developed specifically with the dietary concerns of the developing world in mind, like Golden Rice, have attempted to sidestep that issue by subsidizing the licensing fees for farmers in Southeast Asia with money paid by growers in developed countries. For some, this more altruistic model, which is a far cry from the Monsanto approach, is far more palatable.

But orphan crops? AOCC references marula, Ethiopian mustard, baobab, African eggplant, egusi, amaranth, bananas and moringa as a few of its “crops targeted for improvement,” which, sure, we’re largely unfamiliar with. But is it fair to say that they’ve been so thoroughly neglected by the global markets that they should be deemed orphans? Certainly not in the case of bananas. If you’re of the mind that genetic engineering is the key to solving hunger problems in Africa, plant scientists in Uganda are already working on disease-resistant transgene variety, as the BBC reported in 2008.

A more thorough list of orphan crops from Compatible Technology International features far less obscure plants, including peanuts, quinoa and sorghum; the latter is the dietary staple of more than 500 million people around the world. And, thinking in the terms of groups like AOCC, DuPont has already developed and patented a transgene variety with improved nutritional values—a variety the chemical company donated to the African Biofortified Sorghum initiative.

The poor soil, draught, low yields, vitamin deficiencies and other agriculture and dietary concerns that are common throughout Africa are issues of undeniable importance. Addressing them in a manner that doesn’t smack of paternalism—white, American philanthropists as adoptive parents of African agriculture—at best, and neocolonialism at worst would be a far better way to debate the solutions, whether they involve GMOs or not.