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Plant Researchers Offer Bumper Crop of Humanity

Science: Staples for the poor are genetically altered to boost yield, nutrition. Big firms ignore such work.

December 26, 1997|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA JOLLA — 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.

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