July 5, 2005

African scientists plan GMO super sorghum

By Alistair Thomson

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - African scientists are developinga genetically modified (GMO) super strain of the staple grainsorghum that they say will be vitamin-packed to help fightmalnutrition.

The project brings together several African researchinstitutions as well as a unit of U.S. Dupont, South Africa'sCouncil for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) said in astatement on Tuesday.

"The primary objective of the project is to produce seedsof nutritionally improved cultivars of sorghum, appropriate forplanting, which African small-scale farmers can source on alicense-free basis," CSIR plant biotechnologist Blessed Okolesaid in the statement.

Development of the new sorghum will be carried outprimarily by Dupont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International,the University of Missouri-Columbia in the United States and bySouth Africa's CSIR.

Sorghum is a hardy grain that thrives in the semi-aridconditions that often prove too harsh for non-indigenous cropssuch as maize, which has replaced sorghum as the staple in manyparts of Africa since it was introduced by European colonists.

But natural sorghum does not contain enough nutrients onits own, and adults and children whose diet is primarily basedon sorghum can develop a form of hunger called micronutrientmalnutrition, CSIR said.

Super sorghum will have higher levels of pro-vitamin A andE, iron, zinc as well as essential amino acids, CSIR said.

Biotech crops have sparked controversy in Africa, wheresome countries, despite having trouble growing enough food,have refused GMO food aid or insisted it be milled beforedistribution to avoid contamination of local seed stocks.

Anti-GMO activists say so-called Frankenstein foods riskdestabilising the environment and food production, for exampleby creating super-weeds, or might damage those who eat them viaunknown side-effects.

GMO producers -- including several in South Africa, whichhas pioneered GMO research in Africa -- counter that moreproductive crop strains better able to cope with climaticextremes will help ensure fewer people go hungry in the poorestcontinent.