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To Feed Hungry Africans, Firms Plant Seeds of Science

(Tuesday, March 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Justin Gillis, Washington Post: NEW YORK -- Four of the world's largest agricultural companies have agreed to share their technology free with African scientists in a broad new attempt to increase food production on that continent, where mass starvation is a recurring threat.

The companies, based in the United States and Europe, said they would donate patent rights, seed varieties, laboratory know-how and other aid to help African agricultural scientists who are working with small farmers to battle plant disease, insects and drought.

A new organization, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, is being set up in Nairobi to spearhead the project. In an effort to cut through the thicket of patent rights and corporate interests that complicates many research projects in biology, the foundation will aim to identify crop problems in Africa that might be amenable to technological solutions. It then plans to negotiate with the Western companies for assistance and patent licenses and seek support from African governments to help put new resources -- usually in the form of improved plant varieties -- into the hands of small subsistence farmers across the continent.

About 190 million Africans south of the Sahara, a third of the population, routinely lack sufficient food. It is the world's largest remaining concentration of people who go to bed hungry at night.

The effort faces substantial pitfalls, such as the sheer difficulty of the work and the complicated politics of international development. Because the companies involved sell farm chemicals, such as pesticides, and develop genetically altered crops, people involved said the foundation risks being seen as a front for multinational corporate interests. And, in part because the foundation will consider genetic engineering as one potential solution to the problems in any given crop, skepticism is likely from environmental groups, whose influence in Africa is rising.

Several groups, the U.S. government and the agricultural companies have been supporting piecemeal efforts to aid African farmers for years, with a few notable successes. But the new foundation appears to be the most comprehensive attempt yet to bring the expertise of the major Western companies to bear on the problem. The companies have spent decades learning about drought and pest tolerance in plants, and filing patents on the results -- knowledge that has rarely been tapped in a thoroughgoing way to benefit Africa.

The foundation will be controlled by a majority African board and run by Eugene Terry, a plant pathologist from Sierra Leone known across the continent for his work with cassava, a tropical plant whose starchy roots are used to make bread and tapioca.

The entity is the brainchild of the Rockefeller Foundation, a New York charity that has long focused on efforts to feed the world's poor. Research programs launched by the foundation produced the "Green Revolution" in Asia and Latin America, vastly increasing crop yields and improving nutrition in many countries even in the face of rapid population increases. Norman Borlaug, a foundation scientist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work; the Nobel committee declared that "more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world."

For several reasons, Africa was largely bypassed by the Green Revolution, which produced new, high-yielding varieties of the world's great cereals, wheat and rice. These new varieties required vast swaths of irrigated land and intensive application of fertilizers and pesticides. India, China and other developing countries launched programs to get those tools to poor farmers, but African governments generally did not. Traditional African agriculture is a patchwork of staple crops, such as chickpeas and cassava, that were low on the priority list for Green Revolution researchers.

It's now recognized that the Green Revolution was environmentally costly, in part because many of the chemicals were toxic. Gordon Conway, an ecologist and president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has acknowledged these failings and called for a "doubly green revolution" in Africa that will be more sensitive to environmental concerns.

Conway plans to formally outline the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Washington tomorrow in the context of a larger speech about the prospects for food security in Africa. Plans for the organization are already well underway, however, and people in New York, Washington, Africa and Europe described them at length. Conway plans to seek support from African ambassadors to the United States at a meeting tonight in Washington. The U.S. Agency for International Development, an arm of the government, and its counterpart in Britain are helping to bankroll the plan.

Conway said the Rockefeller Foundation does not expect technology to be a magic bullet for Africa's deep agricultural problems, which include depleted soils and a lack of roads to haul crops to market.

"Technologies are either available or can be available to provide a partial solution to these problems," Conway said. "What we know from the Green Revolution is that certain technologies can have a dramatic effect. They can transform people's lives."

Two American corporations, Monsanto Co. of St. Louis and DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del., have enthusiastically embraced the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. The two firms control the leading American seed producers and own the bulk of the patented technologies that African researchers may want to use.

Getting involved "has been fantastic for us," said Gerard F. Barry, director of research in a Monsanto unit that spearheads technology-sharing projects. Speaking by cellular phone from a cornfield in Brazil, his DuPont colleague, William Niebur, declared: "I think we have a real opportunity to bring not only our technology but our experience and commitment to world agriculture."

Two other agriculture companies, Syngenta AG of Basel, Switzerland, and Dow AgroSciences LLC of Indianapolis, said that they, too, were committed to the project.

The companies say they plan to support the foundation for noble reasons, while acknowledging that in the long run they also hope to create new markets in Africa. They're also searching for ways to burnish their image amid a continuing public relations battle over their development of gene-altered crops. And the companies are mindful of the harsh lessons learned by the pharmaceutical industry for its failure to help Africa battle the AIDS crisis by supplying low-cost drugs. One way to undercut the argument that patents cost lives is to donate the use of those patents for humanitarian causes.

The new foundation will focus on improvements in staple crops of vital importance to tens of millions of Africans, including cowpeas, chickpeas, cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas and corn. Of these crops, only corn represents a meaningful market in Africa now for the ag companies.

Terry said his goal as the foundation's first executive director will be to serve as an honest broker between environmentalists, African farmers and corporate interests. "We definitely have to be able to pass the test of not being a front organization for these companies," he said.

Tewolde B.G. Egziabher, manager of Ethiopia's environmental protection authority and one of the continent's leading voices on conservation and development issues, said he would keep an open mind about the new group and its organizers. But he warned that if the foundation comes to be seen as just a vehicle for pushing genetic engineering in Africa, it will fail.

"I am certain they mean well," he said from Berlin, where he was seeking medical treatment. But he added that African leaders have moved beyond the era when they "felt that the way to develop is the way the United States and the colonial masters tell them."

He expressed particular worry that the project would create seed varieties that entirely supplant the traditional ones Africans have grown. Eventually, he said, the Western companies will want to be paid for their seed, instead of giving the technology away, and if the old varieties are lost, poor African farmers might have nothing to fall back on.

Where Egziabher sees a cause for worry, however, other people in Africa see an opportunity. Godber W. Tumushabe, who runs a think tank for development and the environment in Uganda, has agreed to serve on the foundation's board, where he said he would play a watchdog role. It would not be a bad thing, he said, if eventually the Western companies find a market among African farmers with rising incomes.

"As a matter of fact we have to be cautious, because these are private entities, driven by profits," Tumushabe said from Kampala. "If they are able to achieve their objective in the long term, of building strong markets, but in the short term we are able to improve the life of our people, our interests have met."