Scientist touts GMOs’ benefits in improving food security

Nov 13th, 2009 | By | Category: Ask the Experts

In this Q&A, Martin Ricard talks with a Kenyan-born scientist who believes genetically modified crops are good for developing countries.

By MARTIN RICARD

I recently sat down to talk with Humphrey Wanjugi, 34, a scientist and Kenyan immigrant. He holds a Ph.D. in plant genetics from Montana State University and is currently a post-doc researching wheat genetics with the genomics and gene discovery unit at the United States Department of Agriculture in Albany, Calif. He was also recently hired by Monsanto where he will be working as a trait marker discovery scientist on wheat. He believes genetically modified organisms are good for developing countries, and that they can be used alongside traditional agriculture techniques to improve food security throughout the world.

humphrey-wheat

Scientist Humphrey Wanjugi stands in a greenhouse at the USDA office in Albany, Calif., where wheat is grown for experiments.

Martin Ricard: What was your experience with agriculture?

Humphrey Wanjugi: I grew up in the central highlands of Kenya. So I’ve always had this interest in doing something very constructive, especially when it came to biology. Something that can be used back in African countries and developing countries. I really like it because we have the facilities in the states. And I feel all this information gets to go back especially to developing countries where they don’t have the facilities, they don’t have well-equipped labs, they don’t have the money to do research. So I feel really proud to be doing what I’m doing.

MR: How does farming work in Kenya?

HW: Farming in Kenya is mostly subsistence, basically small-scale owned where people have like one to two acres of land. They do intercropping.

MR: What’s that?

HW: Intercropping is where they just throw everything in there. It’s where you have a farm with beans, corn, potatoes, everything mixed up. But they always do rotation, you know, where they alternate the crops.

The large-scale is not as much, and this is one of the hindrances whereby farming is so much subsistence compared to large-scale, which is very common in the U.S., Argentina, Brazil and others. So you really can’t compare the yield of the subsistence farmer and the large-scale farmer.

MR: Do you know of any successes in terms of agriculture in Kenya? I think I’ve read about cut flowers, that that industry is supposed to be booming?

HW: Yeah, that’s one of the success stories in Kenya, and I’ll take you back and tell you. These farms which are planted in flowers rights now, some of them used to be coffee plantations. When the coffee market dropped in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in Kenya, mostly due to poor governance, most of those farmers went back and replaced those farms with cut flowers.

MR: Why did they choose cut flowers?

HW: Basically it’s a high premium. And most of these people are, you know, huge investors. They have the money, so they can afford these big investments, and it’s easier to market the flowers because Nairobi is an international hub. So it’s easier to market the fresh flowers to Europe or to Asia very easily and still make lots of money out of it.

MR: How did that happen? Like you said, they were coffee farmers before and they saw an opportunity to sell cut flowers. How did they know it would be such a booming sector?

HW: I think they took the examples of other countries like Israel, maybe other countries in the Middle East, and utilized what they’ve done before and then transferred all that technology. So most of these people you see invested in all these farms, most of them are actually not locals. You still have locals, but most of the farms are not owned by local people. So they already know where they are going to market, but it’s good because it creates lots of jobs.

MR: What interests you about wheat genetics, and what’s your vision for what you’re studying?

HW: Wheat is a staple food for 35 percent of the human population. Also, it’s a major source of protein. And, also, it’s one of the most versatile food ingredients. So there’s no way you can do without wheat because it’s a staple food to many communities, especially when you look at China and the Middle East and also looking in the States, whereby most people consume lots of wheat products as opposed to corn which is consumed a lot in African countries.

So wheat production still needs to increase. And for wheat production to increase, a lot of research still has to be done. Wheat is not as much a high premium crop as corn and soybean. These tend to fetch more money. But wheat is a staple food to so many communities. So we’re looking to develop methods or avenues or platforms where we can increase wheat production, especially using genomics and biotechnology. But most people don’t want to hear about genetically modified wheat, for some reason. I have no idea why. People accept genetically modified corn, genetically modified soybean, but when they hear about genetically modified wheat they resist. This is because …I would say most people would say it’s like a holy crop. So I feel there are other avenues that can be used, especially exploiting existing variations in wheat through breeding to increase yield, improve quality and all that kind of stuff.

MR: Why is that? Are they scared of the adverse effects or something else?

HW: The reason is because the U.S. is the main wheat exporter in whole world. So it doesn’t want to be the first country to say, “OK, now we’re exporting genetically modified wheat.” And every time people hear about GMO, they think about, “Oh, it’s this strange monster.” That if I eat this wheat I’ll have seven fingers or things growing out of my head. So there’s that kind of resistance, especially coming from consumers.

Who are the consumers? Most are in developing countries. Lots of Asian countries buy U.S. wheat, the same in most African countries. Go to a rural woman in Africa and ask her, “I have this genetically modified wheat and I have this natural wheat, which one do you want?” and she’s really, really hungry. She is going to say, “No, this is strange. It has some foreign genes that are going to make us infertile or make us die.” You know what I mean? There’s that kind of lack of information on what it really means to be genetically modified. The resistance is not in the United States. It’s in the consumer. The U.S. actually does not want to be the first country to introduce it because most of the consumers are mostly in developing countries.

MR: You bring up a good point about the fears. When you hear GMO or something’s genetically modified, it sounds weird, it just does, right? So what’s the difference for a country in sub-Saharan Africa, for them to have regular wheat versus genetically modified wheat?

HW: Well, there’s no difference. They should embrace biotechnology, especially when it comes to GMOs. What actually needs to happen first is the dissemination of information to people. Because most of the farmers, they are subsistence, they don’t have as much of the information. They’re just growing it for subsistence use, not to market or export it. So they need to be educated about what are the advantages of having genetically modified food.

Let me give you an example. Right now, there’s a big drought in Kenya. People are starving to death. So suppose some brilliant research has come and introduced genetically modified wheat or corn or potatoes or something with a gene that makes crops drought-resistant. There will not be as much hunger as you have now. So I think what needs to happen first is the dissemination of information, why we need this technology and how this technology will help us. So that will eliminate the fears that are there.

MR: So say you figure out how to develop this great drought-resistant wheat crop and they say, “Humphrey, we’re going to disseminate that in different developing countries in Africa.” So knowing what you just said, though, how do you make that breakthrough?

HW: Exactly, this is one of the problems we have in developing countries, especially when you bring in aid to Africa. So what they do is come in with all this money and give it to the government. That money will never trickle down all the way to the common man, no way. And, actually, it also happens to nongovernmental organizations. They tend to work all there but don’t go to the grassroots, the rural people who have the real problem. So, personally, if maybe you give me ten million dollars and I do some research and develop this really drought-resistant wheat, what I’ll do is I would not work with any government official. Well, I’ll work with them, but I won’t make them mange the resources or money. And I’ll go all the way to the people who need it and try to empower the farmers, especially with better seeds, fertilizer and whatever technology they need to make this project be a success.

MR: I had one more question about GMOs. It seems like the research is kind of all over the map. But what have you found? Do they really increase yields? Are they harmful to non-GMO species? Kill the rumors, if you can.

HW: GMO research on yield increase is underway. There’s no GMO wheat that has been released to the market yet. However, I know GMO maize with increased yield potential is in the final stages of trial with biotech companies. The only harm comes if there is an incidence of gene flow to related species or to other fields, which are non-transgenic. Pollen can also cross to other germplasms introducing the transgene that is “not good.” In wheat, which is self-pollinated, evidence of outcrossing has been observed in the wild goat grass which is an obnoxious weed in wheat growing regions like the Palouse (a major wheat-producing agricultural region in the northwestern United States, encompassing parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northeast Oregon). This is one of the concerns that needs to be addressed when Roundup is used. The purpose of Roundup Ready wheat is to control weeds. But if the transgene flows to grassy relatives like jointed goat grass, then it would be hard to control this weed, too. It would be Roundup-resistant.

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