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2000s Archive

Politics of the Plate: Mission Man

continued (page 2 of 2)

Not that success in the lab and the field guarantees adoption on the ground: When farmers in western Kenya first tasted Agili’s sweet potatoes, for instance, they complained about their unusual moistness. “The first request coming back,” says McClafferty, “was ‘Make it dry. We can’t eat this stuff!’”

Agili had no trouble addressing that particular concern, but things may prove a little trickier with some of the other crops in development. There’s the deeply hued carotenoid-enhanced maize, for example, whose dark color may offend in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where yellow maize has long been negatively associated with animal feed and food aid. To head off such backlashes, extension agents distribute seeds and vines to local farmers and conduct exhaustive surveys, asking, for example, why people buy what they buy, how they cook it, and what they eat it with. “All the studies are gendered,” says McClafferty, “because women are the farmers, and women are the cookers, and women put the food in the babies’ mouths. And if we can’t get that vitamin A-rich sweet potato into the babies’ mouths, then what’s the point?”

Today, thanks to an extensive network of associates (the most colorful of whom has to be Jan Low, a scrappy 52-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer who operates out of a Nairobi office she’s painted entirely in sweet-potato orange with leaf-green trim), Bouis has the pleasure of knowing that vitamin A-rich sweet potatoes are getting into the mouths of babies. And the adults growing them are prospering in the process. Otamuna and the other members of the Nako Women’s Group have made enough from their roots to purchase beehives and begin marketing honey, and, thanks to a cookbook produced by Low and friends, they are frying the pounded tubers into the tangerine-bright chapatis and doughnutlike mandazi that now attract crowds outside local churches and primary schools. Last May, some 70 scientists and policymakers from across Africa attended a workshop sponsored by HarvestPlus, and this past March, Bouis signed a memorandum of understanding with the secretary of India’s department of biotechnology to collaborate on micronutrient-dense crop varieties in that country. (Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approached Bouis for help with incorporating nutrition into its programs.)

“It gives me chills, still,” says McClafferty. “I mean, I’ve been working on this forever. You’d think I wouldn’t get so misty-eyed every time I talk about it. But the effect could be profound. For billions of people, eighty percent of their diet is staples, and there’s almost nothing in them. When their babies are hungry, these moms are giving them another chapati, another tortilla. If you could put nutrients into those? Fabulous.”

Not everyone, though, is so impressed by Howarth Bouis and his crops. Vandana Shiva, founder of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, has problems with the entire HarvestPlus premise. Like the $150 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa announced last September by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, says Shiva, Bouis’s initiative, based as it is on implementing a market system and on crop varieties that will largely depend on chemical inputs, is more likely to benefit the multinational companies that make those fertilizers and pesticides than it is the farmers in the fields. (Bouis admits that, for example, the Green Revolution in Asia “was a boon for fertilizer companies,” but says that you can’t get yields up without inputs and “the only way we can feed the world is if we get yields up.”) Instead of directing millions toward “one individual’s resource endowment,” Shiva advocates supporting local communities in a return to the organic cultivation of nutritious crops that have merely been forgotten.

Bouis’s unabashed embrace of genetic modification has also sparked concern. While HarvestPlus has yet to devote more than 15 percent of its budget to research into GM crops (the sweet potatoes, for example, were achieved through conventional breeding), Bouis says that figure will climb as soon as the barrier for acceptance is lowered. “There’s been a lot of fear and a lot of hypotheses about the dangers of this stuff,” he says, referring to the carotenoid-enhanced Golden Rice developed by Syngenta seven years ago (with DNA from bacteria and daffodils) and still buried beneath regulatory red tape today. “But there’s been no evidence. The scientists I talk to just can’t understand why people are so fearful. They say, ‘A gene’s a gene. What could go wrong?’”

Well, patenting, for one thing. Already, says Shiva, the (World Bank-backed and increasingly controversial) CGIAR, originally envisioned as a “countervailing force to seed privatization,” has “facilitated the transfer of what were the collective resources of the farmers of the world into the hands of a few companies who then patent them and sell them at huge profits.” HarvestPlus doesn’t currently have any alliances with the private sector, but McClafferty doesn’t rule out pairing up “with the ADMs and Cargills of the world.” Certainly, the 600,000 seeds that make up the CGIAR gene bank are of immense potential value to industries ranging from agribusiness to pharmaceuticals. (A Gates spokesperson says its grantmaking and investment arms comprise a “two-entity structure,” whose branches operate independently, but it’s worth noting that the foundation has major holdings in Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP, companies whose oil is a key ingredient in the production of chemical fertilizers, and that it has more than a billion dollars invested in such plant-dependent “life science” companies as Abbott Laboratories, Merck & Co., Eli Lilly, Seattle Genetics, Pfizer, Wyeth, and Schering-Plough.)

Neither does Bouis see any problem with the fact that he himself sits on the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and has worked with representatives of Syngenta, the world’s second-largest agrochemical corporation and its third-largest seed company, which was awarded a “Captain Hook Award for Biopiracy” in 2006 by the Ottawa-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration. “I don’t have any fear” about the appearance of a conflict of interest, he says with a boyish laugh. “Maybe I should. My own feeling is that this is something that’s gonna help people. I just feel like in the end the truth wins out. It may take longer than I’d hoped, but I’m confident that in the end it will win out.”

Let others worry about the deep, dark motivations of his backers, Bouis seems to say; he’s got more-pressing things on his mind. With 54 partnering organizations, projects in 50 countries, and work progressing on 16 separate crops, it’s all he can do these days to put on a matching pair of socks. And by the way, there are children suffering in slums and villages all over the world, the bodies and minds of entire adult populations hanging in the balance.

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