The potential of genetic engineering to massively boost the production of cassava – one of Africa's most important foods – by defeating a devastating virus has been heavily promoted since the mid-1990s. There has even been talk of GM solving hunger in Africa by increasing cassava yields as much as tenfold. To date almost nothing appears to have been achieved, and even after it became clear that the GM cassava had suffered a major technical failure, the hype about its curing hunger in Africa continued regardless. Meanwhile, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has quietly been producing virus resistant cassavas that are already making a remarkable difference in farmers' fields, even under drought conditions.
In an article published in the LA Times in 1997, Claude M. Fauquet, a French plant virologist, predicted that a food crisis was coming in the decades ahead. He said, "We need to improve production. [With some crops], biotech is our only hope." One such crop was cassava. At the time, Fauquet was leading a California-based team which was working on producing a cassava genetically modified to resist the devastating cassava mosaic virus or cassava mosaic disease.
GM, claimed Fauquet, "could double, triple, quadruple production of African crops." In the case of cassava, Fauquet told the LA Times, the typical yield in Africa was 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.'"
The first GM cassava plant had been created in 1995 and field-testing was originally planned for 1999. Fauquet's research went on to be hosted by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. The Danforth Center was launched with a $50 million gift from Monsanto, which also donated the Center's 40-acre tract of land, near Monsanto's home town of St. Louis, Missourri, valued at $11.4 million. The Danforth Center has heavily promoted GM as the key to unlocking the full potential of cassava.
An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in late 2005 reported that although millions were starving in Africa, "The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center says it can feed the continent with cassava, a potato-like crop that a virus has decimated." The Post-Dispatch also reported that although this life sustaining GM cassava was ready to be field tested, it was not being taken up by African countries in the way the Danforth center would like: "The center, in Creve Coeur, has leafy, virus resistant plants ready to give away. But no one in Africa is taking them. Field test approvals are stalled in Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria." According to Lawrence Kent, the Center's then director of international programs, "One delay could mean that a million people are going to be hungry for six months... I think, this is serious and we have to fight to make it happen."
But less than 9 months later, the Danforth Center quietly admitted that its GM cassava varieties had lost their resistance to the virus. This was despite the fact that the GM cassava had been said to be ready for field trials for the past 7 years and the Danforth Center's website had proclaimed "transgenic plants developed at the Danforth Center have demonstrated strong resistance to the disease in greenhouse trials over multiple years." Now they admitted, "the resistance was subsequently lost, and that methylation of [changes to] the plant's DNA had taken place."
The Danforth Center had also held out promises on its website that its: "virus-resistance technology will initially be deployed in the East African region's most popular [cassava] cultivar - Ebwanatareka - for adoption by the 22,000 Kenyan farming families…. the project will help 200,000 Kenyan cassava farmers and their families and increase cassava harvests by 50% on a sustainable basis." Similar benefits were also promised to neighbouring Uganda and to millions of farmers throughout Africa. But those promises turned out to be false. The Danforth Center's partner in Kenya was KARI (Kenya Agricultural Research Institute) - the research institute that had previously been used to field trial the failed GM sweet potato - a showcase project which had garnered many headlines declaring its remarkable success. But the GM cassava had failed even before it had made it out of KARI's greenhouses.
Despite this, barely more than 6 months later, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was running exactly the same claims for the GM cassava all over again. This time they formed part of an eye-catching series of articles with titles such as "Can biotech from St. Louis solve hunger in Africa?" with emotive images and sub-headings like "Stunted children". According to the Post-Dispatch, "The center is trying to give away a genetically engineered cassava, one of the most important foods in Africa. A spreading virus is wiping out the crop. The St Louis scientists think they have the cure." The Post-Dispatch also told its readers, "Scientists genetically engineered the plant in 1999 to resist the virus. Since then, they have been trying to give the technology away."
This made it sound like the Danforth Center had long been hammering on Africa's doors with a viable GM product that could cure hunger and plant disease susceptibility, if only African governments would be sensible enough to buy into it. In reality, the GM cassava was stuck at the experimental stage - a stage it appears to still be stuck at to this day despite Monsanto having poured millions into the project. In 2006 alone Monsanto is reported to have given the Danforth Center a further $7.5 million for cassava work.
Meanwhile, despite all the hype about GM being "our only hope", conventional non-GM plant breeding has been quietly and successfully producing virus resistant cassavas for a number of years, and they are already making a difference in farmers' fields. IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) has developed a cassava through conventional breeding which has a high level of resistance to several diseases, including the Cassava Bacterial Blight (CBB) and Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), and is also drought resistant, increasing yield under drought 6- to 10-fold.
The reality for cassava farmers of the success of conventional non-GM plant breeding is underscored by the FAO - Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations - which in 2008 reported that farmers are now harvesting healthy virus-resistant cassava throughout the Great Lakes region of central Africa where the cassava mosaic virus is particularly virulent. "By the last planting season, virus-free cassava planting material had been distributed to some 330 000 smallholders in countries struck by the virus - Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The improved crop now benefits a total of some 1.65 million people," the FAO reported.
In June 2009 during a Food and Agriculture Organisation online discussion, Paul Anderson, Executive Director of International Programs at the Danforth Center, said in answer to a comment by another participant about the failure of the GM cassava project: "To speak of success or failure during the experimental phase of this or other research is not appropriate, as scientists are aware."
But no such rejoinder was ever made to those employed by Anderson's own Center, which garnered many column inches by claiming their GM cassava was going to save Africa by doubling or quadrupling production - or even increasing it tenfold. There is no problem, it seems, with years of speculative hyperbole about the enormous benefits experimental GM crops are imminently about to deliver. Only talk of failure is illegitimate.
1. Martha Groves, "Plant Researchers Offer Bumper Crop of Humanity", LA Times, 26 December 1997
2. Martha Groves, "Plant Researchers Offer Bumper Crop of Humanity", LA Times, 26 December 1997
3. "Roger Beachy", SpinProfiles.org
4. Eric Hand, "Hungry African nations balk at biotech cassava: the politics of biotechnology", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 September 2005
5. Cited in Mariam Mayet, "GM cassava fails in Africa", African Centre for Biosafety, September 2006, accessed 27 June 2009
6. "Danforth Center cassava viral resistance update", Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, 30 June 2006, accessed 27 June 2009
7. Cited in Mariam Mayet, "GM cassava fails in Africa", African Centre for Biosafety, September 2006, accessed 27 June 2009
8. "Millions served - the GM sweet potato", GMWatch, June 2009
9. Kurt Greenbaum, "Can biotech from St. Louis solve hunger in Africa?", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 December 2006,
10. Eric Hand, "St. Louis team fights crop killer in Africa", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 December 2006
11. Eric Hand, "St. Louis team fights crop killer in Africa", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 December 2006
12. "Farmers get better yields from new drought-tolerant cassava", IITA, 3 November 2008
13. "Cassava's comeback", United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 13 November 2008