Plant Researchers Offer Bumper Crop of Humanity
The way Vincent Fondong sees it, the solution to feeding the hungry people of his native Cameroon and other African nations lies halfway around the world, in the test tubes, petri dishes and plant pots at Scripps Research Institute.
Here, Fondong and an international team of scientists are working to alter the genetic makeup of cassava--a starchy root crop that sustains 500 million people, mainly the poor--to enable the plant to stave off two viruses that are crisscrossing Africa, decimating the yields of subsistence farmers.
As scientists wrestle with how to feed the globe’s burgeoning population, they point to biotechnology as offering the greatest promise. By genetically transforming plants, researchers say, they can improve resistance to viruses and bacteria, boost nutritional value and increase tolerance to salt and drought.
But “orphan” crops such as cassava, known in this country as tapioca, and rice have attracted little attention from private-sector giants such as Monsanto Co. and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. Those companies and others in the industrialized world have instead channeled their massive research and marketing dollars to corn, wheat, cotton and soybeans--crops with huge commercial potential in the United States and Europe.
Seeking to bridge the chasm between cutting-edge plant laboratories and developing countries, the Rockefeller Foundation in the mid-1980s began coordinating and funding research into rice--the world’s most important staple, essential to the food security of more than 2 billion people in Asia alone--and, later, cassava.
As things stand, the global economy produces enough food to feed the world’s nearly 6 billion people and even more, if it were distributed equitably. But access is far from equitable.
“This food is not readily available to many millions of people,” wrote researcher Don Hinrichsen in a new study for Johns Hopkins University on population growth and food needs. As many as 1 in 3 individuals cannot get the calories and nutritional variety they need. Each year, the study says, 18 million people, mostly children, die of starvation, malnutrition and related causes--many because of civil strife, economic chaos and social inequities, but others simply because they cannot get to the food they need.
A chief beneficiary of the Rockefeller program has been the International Laboratory for Tropical Agricultural Biotechnology, or ILTAB, formed in 1991 as a partnership between Scripps and ORSTOM, a French public research institute. It is housed in the prestigious Scripps facilities in the affluent coastal community of La Jolla, where hunger is a strictly academic problem.
‘Serving the Larger Community’
At ILTAB, Fondong and 23 other scientists from India, Mexico, China, Vietnam and elsewhere are striving not for hefty shareholder returns but for the greater good of humankind. When their research stints conclude, many will return home to share their newfound knowledge, helping to give Third World farmers the tools they need to eat well and prosper.
“The research here is driven with the intention of serving the larger community,” said Claude M. Fauquet, a French plant virologist who leads the team. “We could double, triple, quadruple production of African crops with very simple, available technologies.”
Biotechnology has drawn many critics who worry that it is at best a short-term fix and at worst a dangerous tampering with nature. Transgenic--or genetically altered--plants, they maintain, could harm fragile ecologies and result in the unintentional creation of hardier weeds that would strangle the very crops scientists want to enhance.
But Fauquet and many other plant scientists view such research as a social imperative.
“There is a crisis coming in the year 2020 or 2025 or 2030,” Fauquet said. “We know this for one simple reason: We have used 90% of the arable land. We need to improve production. [With some crops], biotech is our only hope.”
Big Firms Want Financial Returns
With world population widely expected to soar to 8 billion by 2025, it is projected that tens of millions of people will lack food security, defined by the United Nations as constant access to enough safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.
For the Third World, Fauquet said, biotechnology research could make the difference between starvation and plenty. But funding that research is a challenge, given that deep-pocket biotech corporations see little payoff in poor-country crops such as cassava, sorghum, millet and even rice.
“We’re trying to make an investment that correlates with the potential,” said Rob Horsch, vice president and general manager of Monsanto’s Agracetus operation in Middleton, Wis. “This [research] is very expensive and high risk in the early stages.” Without patent protection and the opportunity to receive licensing and technology fees, Horsch noted, companies would have little financial inducement to advance plant biology.
Governments and universities once took up the slack on behalf of the Third World, Horsch said, but public-sector investment “has not kept pace with the technological possibilities.” Since 1992, for example, the U.S. government has slashed its contributions to global crop research.
“It’s a tragedy the U.S. has cut back so sharply on something that pays off so well,” said Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “The private sector won’t be investing in nitrogen-fixing cereal crops or improved protection for cassava against the cassava mosaic virus, which destroys the crop and is creating famine in the African equatorial belt.
“We’ve gone overboard with a state-minimalist view,” he added. “In agriculture, we’ve bought the line that the government has to do less.”
Coordinated Research Into Staples Like Rice
Noting that rice and other staples were being neglected in the mid-1980s, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York began to coordinate biotech research into these crops. The institute had had a long, successful history with rice-breeding programs in Asia, but the yield increases expected from conventional breeding did not meet demand.
Over the last dozen years, the foundation has pumped $82 million into rice research and the training of scientists who then spread their knowledge to indigenous farmers.
The foundation’s cassava contributions over the last eight years total $5 million, of which half has been for pure research. (By contrast, Monsanto, a leader in agricultural research, spent $647 million in 1996 on all research and development, including crop biotech.)
The Rockefeller Foundation requires grant recipients to make their technologies freely available in developing countries.
With cassava, which resembles an oversize yam, the goal is to improve not only yields but also crop quality and to help farmers develop markets for the 300 industrial products derived from the root, among them starches, alcohol and glue for assembling plywood. That, Fauquet suggests, would spur interest from private companies.
A native South American plant, cassava was carried by Portuguese traders to Congo before 1600 and later to eastern Africa and Asia. It is now grown in 92 tropical and subtropical nations, usually on marginal land.
A typical yield in Africa is 4 tons per acre, but Fauquet maintains that resistance to viruses could boost that tenfold. A mere doubling of production, he added, “would represent food independence for the African continent.”
Hope for a Second ‘Green Revolution’
That would mean nothing less than a second “Green Revolution,” similar to the 1960s phenomenon that radically boosted the productivity of rice, wheat and corn. But those agricultural advances were propelled in large part by petrochemical-based substances, many of them devised first for wartime. The hope for a new revolution is that, by improving plants’ genetics to make them resistant to pests and viruses, scientists can reduce the need for harsh herbicides and pesticides that over time deplete soils, taint ground water and pose health risks.
“Malla, Yanhai, Jesus, Ted, Mohamed” read the names on a sign in a cold room in the Scripps molecular biology laboratory of Roger N. Beachy, who heads the institute’s plant biology division and carved out space for Fauquet and his ILTAB researchers.
The names reflect the multicultural effort. The labs and hallways echo with the chattering of people for whom English is in some cases a third or fourth language.
ILTAB scientists use two methods to get foreign DNA--basic genetic material from viruses, bacteria or other plants--into cassava and rice plants.
The easier method entails mixing an early cell (that retains the potential to mature into a plant) with a plant disease called an agrobacterium. The agrobacterium, a natural genetic engineer, attaches itself to the plant cell and injects its own DNA. The other, more haphazard “bombardment” method uses a machine that literally blasts DNA into an embryogenic cell. The modified cells are then cultured, and plants are generated from the tissue.
Third World scientists consider it a stroke of luck to spend time in a Western lab the caliber of Scripps. Fondong, 34, grew up in the lowest level of society in the West African nation of Cameroon, where his parents subsist largely on cassava. Whenever yields are bad, he said, they blame the poor soil. Their son knows better, that the plant leaves shrivel because of a variety of the cassava mosaic virus, brought from India a century ago by whiteflies.
Although he will spend just three months at ILTAB, Fondong hopes to learn much about the nature of the virus. Eventually, he plans to return to Cameroon, armed with a PhD and genetically engineered, virus-resistant plants. But that goal is a long way off. “In the next 10 years,” he said, “I should be able to help.”
It remains to be seen whether and at what cost the technology will be transferred to countries that can use it. Transgenic rice resistant to deadly tungro viruses and bacterial blights--which routinely result in crop losses of about 15%--will be field-tested in the Philippines and in southern China beginning next year, Fauquet said. Tests in the Philippines will be conducted with the International Rice Research Institute, a center for the development of “miracle” rice types for Asia.
Unanticipated technical problems have delayed advances in cassava, Fauquet said. The first transgenic cassava plant was created in 1995, years behind schedule, but propagation of transgenic plants has now become routine. Next year, virus-resistant plants will head for greenhouses in Colombia, with field-testing planned for 1999.
Africa has yet to develop regulations governing biotechnology research, postponing testing there indefinitely.
Despite the obstacles, the ILTAB team is determined to plow ahead.
“The year 2020 doesn’t scare me if we move ahead with better crops and better education,” Beachy said. “If we don’t look for continued improvements, I am concerned.
“We find philanthropic people who want to cure cancer, but food for the world gets no support. Where is the Howard Hughes of plant agriculture?”
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Mother Crop for Millions
The cassava root resembles--but is larger than--the sweet potato or the yam. As a food, it is a primary source of calories for 500 million people in the tropics, especially South America and Africa. But it also can be processed into 300 industrial products, including alcohol, glue and starch. Through bioengineering, scientists are developing ways to improve cassava plants to make them resistant to disease and therefore easier to grow. Here is how they do it:
1. Scientists select a plant in need of improvement and cultivate a clone.
2. They culture the tissue in beakers and select cells that are good candidates to be transferred by the addition of DNA (the basic genetic material) from a virus, a bacterium or another plant.
3. They attempt a gene transfer in one of two ways. They either mix the cells with an agrobacterium, or plant disease, that is a natural genetic shuttle that transfers its own DNA to another cell. Or they put the cell into a machine and literally bombard it with DNA from another source.
4. Tissue is cultured from the gentically altered cell, and then a plant regenerates from that tissue. Because the plant contains foreign genes, it is called transgenic.
Two leaves from separate cassava plants illustrate the effects of bioengineering. The smaller, shriveled leaf is from a severely diseased plant. The larger leaf is healthy. Viruses stunt plant growth by preventing development of roots.
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How to Help
Scores of American charities help to feed the world’s hungry. Here are just a few:
CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES
209 W. Fayette St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
FOOD FOR THE HUNGRY
7729 E. Greenway Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85260
FREEDOM FROM HUNGER
1644 DaVinci Court
Davis, CA 95617
THE HUNGER PROJECT
15 E. 26th St.
New York, NY 10010
INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS
12233 W. Olympic Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90064
For a list of other agencies, contact InterAction, a coalition of emergency relief and development groups, at (202) 667-8227 or on the Internet at https://www.interaction.org/ia//
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About This Series
At a time when humankind has the resources to conquer hunger, 800 million people are chronically undernourished.
* Monday: International agencies are seeking innovative strategies to combat the problem at its core.
* Tuesday: Nearly 40 years after Maoist ideology led to cataclysmic famine in China, the lessons can be applied to another isolationist, hunger-racked state: North Korea.
* Wednesday: No place in the world suffers more from conflict-born starvation than Africa, where civil war, ethnic bloodletting, coups d’etat and revolution take a tremendous toll.
* Thursday: Class divisions perpetuate hunger and turn India into a nation of contradictions: Stretches of bountiful land coexist with pockets of utter desperation.
* Today: Scientists hope dramatic discoveries in plant genetics and biotechnology will produce a second “Green Revolution” that will help feed a swelling world population.
* On the Web: The complete series is accessible on the Internet at
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A staple food is one that is eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply a major proportion of energy and nutritional needs. Following are staples of different regions:
* Central Asia
Of more than 50,000 types of edible plants, just three--rice, maize and wheat--provide 60% of the world’s food energy intake.
While agricultural production will grow faster than world population over coming decades, the margin between the two figures will shrink.
Growth rates in per capita production:
1990-2010: 0.25% (projected)