Sunday, July 6, 2008


The title and topic of this Al Fin post somehow gelled with this Connie du Toit post, in particular this brief closing passage:

And I want that bread, and all that it entails. I want a life with every bite being worthy, and I come close to crying myself to sleep every night that I can’t wake up to that luxurious and seductive smell of fresh baked croissants in the oven, prepared with love and care, not made cheaply and quickly and efficiently. Two weeks a year is not enough! I want Americans to feel and taste that experience, so they demand that everything in their life be as perfect as that bite of bread.

It begins with the bread and ends with joie de vivre!

Together, they sparked my better understanding of this earlier Al Fin post, noting the Gates Foundation-funded development of a genetically altered cassava root - a dietary staple in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Had I researched a little deeper into the subject, I would have noted that the cyanide problem I made so much of in comments wasn't a by-product of the Gates-funded genetic enhancement, but was a specific object for amelioration via genetic manipulation.

I stand by my characterisation of the outcome as "frankenfood", however silly I may think the fear-mongering effort it derives from to be. That said ... to fellow Al Fin commenter IConrad I offer my apology. Heaping scorn upon a silly idea is never a pleasant experience, as I can now personally testify. Again.

I do wonder though if perhaps these particular researchers haven't attempted a "bridge too far" in their efforts. It seems reasonable to suppose that creating two (or more) strains of enhanced cassava that achieve different aspects of the desired ends might be a more manageable prospect. The foregoing assumes the possibility for outright removal of the cyanide collection characteristic from the plant, of course. If one strain delivered the protein - and did so without need for the extensive processing effort necessary to remove the cyanide from the existing strain - while a different strain delivered the vitamins, this would allow the "rural village farmers" to mix and match their personal dietary resources with their financial needs when trading any excess produce.

I can't help but wonder if such a scheme wouldn't also prove useful in developing a genetic enhancement capability to combat the crop productivity problem noted in the source article via means of a crop rotation regimen:

The roots can be banked in the ground for up to three years, providing food security, but the plant must undergo time-consuming processing immediately after harvest to remove compounds that generate cyanide. Unprocessed roots also deteriorate within 48 hours after harvest, limiting the food's shelf life. And a plant disease caused by the geminivirus reduces yields by 30 percent to 50 percent in many areas in sub-Saharan Africa, a major blow to farm productivity.

My personal experience of rural life doesn't extend to Africa, but despite the evidence to the contrary above, I do read and have some experience of N. American conditions. Sufficient experience at least to be aware that dietary supplement is a sporadic but routine event in rural life. We in the West call it "sport", but hunting and fishing is an important contribution to the diets of rural populations. As these activities are at best variably successful, the ability to manipulate the level of protein in the diet via a particular strain of cassava would offer the dual possibility of increased adaptability to variable circumstance to the grower along with a lessening of complexity (I think) for the genetic manipulators.

Keeping in mind my "tastes like almonds" wisecrack, along with the experience of US AID officials distributing "enhanced" rice during the '60's (the strain indeed produced more grain/acre, but the Vietnamese declared it to be, errr ... unpalatable, to be charitable), all the best intentions and technical "success" in the world won't matter if no-one will eat the result. The researchers seem to be taking care to ensure that local talent exists to nurture the further development of the cassava enhancement project. I hope that similar care is taken to facilitate the incorporation of this enhanced product by the only really important judges on the planet - the eaters thereof.

The experience of other genetically enhanced foods into the African market also offers an important lesson, I suggest. Not to be overly blunt, but a good thing is always "better" the more local interests there are that benefit from it's widespread adoption. Perhaps Bill and Mel might consider hiring numerous African agents when the time is right to encourage introduction of the enhanced cassava they've already spent so much to develop. It would be a shame if so much possibility were to be denied simply to ensure continuation of the established practices this project seeks to alleviate.

As the lady said, "It begins with the bread ..." indeed.

1 comment:

al fin said...

Nice post, Will.

You know, on blog comments, one expects some give and take, and should learn not to take isolated comments too seriously.

Internet communication lacks the nuance of a face to face, so a comment or two usually means little. Of course, you may experience the occasional troll who seems to make it his job to denigrate every thing about you, including your parents, sexual habits, and heritage. Those are the ones who might make you consider moderating comments, or even changing to another comment or blogging system altogether.

I feel like if I don't offend someone fairly often, I'm not doing my job. ;-)