Hail, GMO Cassava!
Religion & Liberty Online

Hail, GMO Cassava!

Oh, dear! GMO cassava can potentially feed millions on the African continent? Heaven forfend![/caption]If you grew up outside the African and South American continents you can be forgiven for thinking cassava is the latest variation of salsa music or perhaps the funky new energy beverage trendy hipsters are drinking these days. In Africa, however, 500 million individuals recognize cassava as a dietary staple much like the rest of the world enjoys potatoes and rice.

Native to South America, cassava was introduced to Africa by Portuguese colonists. Many cassava species exist in South America, however, that cannot be exported to Africa due to cassava mosaic disease, a virus exclusive to Africa. Eighty percent of the African cassava crop perished from mosaic disease in the 1920s, resulting in widespread famine. Other threats to the cassava include such pests as the cassava mealy bug and the cassava green mite.

Addressing this Third-World problem requires some agricultural-science expertise, which most certainly will chagrin the scientifically challenged, anti-genetically modified organism crowd. Because, you know, frankenfoods and such. Readers will remember Green America, among the most outspoken group of GMO detractors. Green America boasts Ceres and US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing affiliations. In turn, these affiliates trumpet their relationships with religious shareholder activists As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

Green America’s outspokenness on GMOs includes reposting a Sept. 2014 article by Debbie Barker, International Programs Director, Center for Food Safety, in which she cavils:

Similarly, the biotech industry touted that cassava, one of the most important starch crops in Africa, was enriched with greatly increased protein content using genetic engineering. However, the research article claiming the elevated protein was later retracted when it was found that the purported increased protein did not exist.

While Barker’s assertion may contain some verity, it’s also quite shortsighted. After all, while the initial protein content of GM cassava may fall short of desired results, it’s also important to ensure the cassava plant depended upon by millions for nourishment is resistant to viruses and pests. Methinks Ms. Barker doth protest too much. You gotta walk before you can run, and recent developments reveal GM cassava is picking up a head of steam.

According to The Economist:

[Cassava] is in the process of getting a makeover which employs the best that agricultural science has to offer. And Chiedozie Egesi of the National Root Crops Research Institute in Umudike, Nigeria, who leads the NextGen Cassava project, told the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Washington, DC, all about it….

Dr Egesi and his colleagues are trying to deal with the aliens’ sensitivities by way of a breeding programme based on genomics.

They started with 6,128 different cassava specimens from all over Africa, and genotyped them using a technique called SNP analysis. The acronym stands for single-nucleotide polymorphism, a place in the genome where a single genetic letter varies from strain to strain. They found more than 40,000 SNPs that they could use to act as markers of genetic variation. Examining and testing full-grown plants from the collection for desirable characteristics, known as phenotypes, permitted Dr Egesi and his team to find correlations between particular patterns of SNPs and particular phenotypes. They then picked out 100 specimens with especially promising SNP patterns and crossed them, to produce nearly 10,000 hybrids. They grew these, checked the SNP patterns of the offspring to see which their computer model predicted would have the desired characteristic (in this case, giving special attention to resistance to cassava mosaic virus), picked, once again, the 100 most promising, and repeated the process.

Uh oh…. If this biotechnology sounds an awful lot like GMOs, it’s because it’s along the same lines of research that has Ms. Barker clutching her pearls. Dr. Egesi’s activities resemble similar work currently conducted in Uganda and Kenya (such as here and here).

The Economist story continues:

They are now in the third cycle of the procedure (each generation of plants takes a year to raise and process) and reckon one more cycle will be required to get to the desired level of resistance. Moreover, what can be done for resistance to the cassava mosaic virus, Dr Egesi thinks, can be done simultaneously for other desirable phenotypes. He hopes SNP-based breeding will double cassava yields from their average value of about 10 tonnes a hectare as well as increase the amount of starch in the plant’s root, increasing its nutritional and economic value. And there are further diseases he hopes to get rid of this way, including brown-streak virus and bacteria blight….

The prize for all this effort would be to put cassava on a par with the improved crops of the rich world. It might even become, like them, more of an industrial cash crop than something just grown for the pot, as is often the case now. Dr Egesi thinks his method can be used to improve the yield and quality of flour and starch made from cassava, making it more saleable. And that might have social as well as nutritional consequences. Most African cassava farmers are women. Putting money in their pockets would improve family budgets, and thus the welfare of some of the world’s poorest countries.

Wow. There’s so much information to consume and digest above – and most of it positive for Third-World countries if indeed such developments transpire. Why would any person or group – especially those of a religious persuasion – attempt to stand in the way?

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.