Sometimes the solutions to humanity's problems are only a mouse click away. "How do you feed half a billion people in the desert?" a graphic on the Web site of the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project asks. The answer it proposes is: "Super Sorghum!"
"Grow it!" the Web site, sponsored by a consortium of the agricultural industry and the scientific community, suggests succinctly. A happy, smiling child underscores the site's intense message: The world is being saved right here, and we're doing it with the help of genetic engineering. The project's scientists are trying to develop new sorghum varieties that would be more nutritious and easier to digest than conventional varieties. The developers promise that their new grain will provide more iron, zinc, essential amino acids and vitamins.
"Super sorghum can sustainably improve the health of millions of Africans," says project director Florence Wambugu of the organization Africa Harvest. The best thing about it, says Wambugu, is that the plant "can thrive in some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the African continent where food aid struggles to reach."
Is the solution that easy? Could the fruits of genetically modified (GM) plants truly help protect tens of thousands of people every day from dying of starvation?
The genetic engineering industry is convinced it can. "The avoidance of famine requires that we make full use of all technological possibilities," says Martin Taylor of the Swiss agricultural giant Syngenta. The findings of a report released last week by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), however, are more skeptical. Even today's modern agriculture "hasn't reached everyone," says Robert Watson, the coordinator of the report developed by more than 400 scientists. It is possible, according to Watson, that GM plants will play a role in fighting hunger in the future. But, he adds, we must carefully examine whether the technology is truly helping poor farmers or merely filling the coffers of agricultural companies.
The fact is that the genetic engineering industry is selling more and more of its seed, and 43 percent of the fields where the seed is now being used are in developing countries and emerging economies, especially Argentina, Brazil, India and China.
A "Roundup Ready" soybean plant developed by the genetic engineering company Monsanto has been especially successful in South America. The plant is resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. Monsanto promises that farmers will only have to spray their GM soybean fields with glyphosate, which can supposedly eliminate almost all types of weeds.
The company's so-called Bt cotton is also seen as a success. The seed, which contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in its genetic makeup, is supposed to be resistant to the cotton bollworm -- a pest that normally bores into up to 60 percent of plants.
Thanks to Bt cotton, Indian farmers have increased their yields by more than a third, says Terri Raney of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. They also spent an average of 41 percent less on pesticides and herbicides. Despite high seed prices, their profits increased by close to 70 percent, according to Raney.
Despite these successes, the FAO expert remains skeptical over whether this rapid development truly benefits the poorest of the poor. Only four plants (cotton, corn, rape and soy) and two attributes (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) that have been introduced using genetic engineering make up more than 99 percent of all GM plants to date. "And these plants are certainly not aimed at small farmers in developing countries," says Raney.
In emerging economies like Argentina and India, the harvests of GM crops end up primarily in the production of export goods. This means that GM plants are mainly of interest to farmers with relatively large plots of arable land. Small farmers, on the other hand, are often left out to dry.
In Argentina, for example, soybean monocultures have disturbed established rural structures, claims the environment organization Friends of the Earth, a development that has led to poverty and migration into cities.
In India, the high costs of patented GM seeds are bankrupting many of the poorest farmers. "The biotech industry is telling us that we need GM crops to tackle the food needs of our population," says Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Nigeria. "But how can we believe such statements when the majority of GM crops are used to feed the animals of rich countries or to produce industrial products like agrofuels?"
Therein lies the fundamental problem. New types of plants are mainly good business when they serve global markets and grow on large plots of land. But the plants that would be suitable for use in the fight against hunger are those that conform to local soil, climate and infrastructure conditions, while at the same time remaining a publicly accessible and affordable resource, even for small farmers.
"The developing world needs plants with better nutritional value and greater resistance to drought, salinization and disease," says Janice Jiggins of the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, one of the authors of the IAASTD report. According to Jiggins, local varieties of rice and wheat, black-eyed peas, sorghum and teff are important field crops for the poor. "Many of these varieties are definitely not central to the industry's agenda," she says.
For years now, experts have been calling for publicly funded research into locally established grain varieties. A number of promising projects are already underway. South African scientists, for example, have developed a corn plant that is resistant to the devastating maize stripe virus. Uganda is testing banana plants that are better protected against the Black Sigatoka disease, a fungal infection that can destroy up to 50 percent of the harvest.
Scientists in Africa and Asia are experimenting with GM tomatoes, eggplant, mustard greens and cauliflower plants. Rice, the most important staple food for almost half the world's population, is already being modified in genetic laboratories.
Chinese scientists are testing insect-resistant rice developed in their own country. A similar rice variety is already being farmed commercially in Iran. New field tests with "Golden Rice" began early this month in the Philippines. Through genetic intervention, the yellow rice grains contain beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The hope is that Golden Rice will eventually prevent vitamin deficiencies that cause blindness in close to a half-million children each year.
Research institutes from seven countries and the Swiss agricultural company Syngenta are involved in the development of Golden Rice, as part of a model that could point to the future of such efforts. In the future, predicts Joachim von Braun of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, "The biotech companies, with their high technology, will form partnerships with biotech institutes in developing countries that provide the local knowledge."
Braun expects GM plants to offset poor harvests caused by droughts or floods in the future, "but it won't happen quickly." Despite the biotech companies' large research budgets, the technology itself also remains a stumbling block.
Can Designer Plants even Work?
"Research is moving ahead at a much slower pace than expected," says Klaus-Dieter Jany of the Max Rubner Institute in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe. Drought-resistant and salt-tolerant plants for areas with brackish water, for example, are still in development, says Jany. Using the tools of genetic engineering to increase crop yields is so complicated that most genetic researchers have not even tried it yet.
Does this mean that designer plants are incapable of satisfying expectations altogether? Some companies are now touting conventional cultivation methods again. "We are utilizing the entire palette of agricultural technologies," says Robert Berendes, a member of management at Syngenta, "there is no patent solution." Berendes cites "modern chemical plant protection" as an example and emphasizes the advantages of conventionally grown tropical sugar beets, which can grow in "barren soil with a high salt content."
Syngenta also emphasizes a process known as marker-supported selection. The method accelerates breeding because analysis of genetic material is used to select those plant seedlings that have the most promising traits. In the Philippines, for example, a team from the International Rice Research Institute has discovered a gene sequence in rice plants that helps the plants survive flooding more successfully.
Rice normally dies off quickly when submerged in water. But if the advantageous gene sequence is inserted into commercial varieties, their chances of surviving floods are improved.
Most experts agree that, in the long term, the products developed by genetic engineers will end up on the fields of the poor. "However, the modified plants will have to be tailored far more effectively to the natural and social conditions in developing countries," says social scientist Jiggins. Besides, she adds, a lot more research funding will be needed before GM seed bears fruit in the developing world.
Will private donors fill the gap once again? The first green revolution in the mid-20th century, which remains controversial to this day, was funded in part by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations in the United States. In 2006, the latter formed an alliance with the foundation established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to forge a new green revolution in Africa. Gates also donates millions through a program called Grand Challenges in Global Health. That program has invested about $18 million (€11.3 million) in Florence Wambugu's Super Sorghum project.
Former Monsanto employee Wambugu's ambitious plans failed initially as a result of the debate over genetic engineering. At the end of the day, human fears could ultimately prevent a second green revolution. The South African authorities have already prohibited a first greenhouse trial with Wambugu's super sorghum, arguing that it would be too dangerous for the environment.