GMOs are a Red Herring

You’ll pardon a bit of a rant today, but I’m just going to come out and say it: I hate the GMO debate.

Not GMOs, mind you, the debate.

The GMO debate is boring. And not in a good way.

It’s not just because reasonable people temporarily take leave of their senses when they discuss it. (Though that’s part of it.)

It’s not just the creepy quasi-religious fervour on both sides. (Though that’s definitely part of it.)

It’s the way the GMOs constrict a debate that really ought to be much broader.

Take drought resistance. An almighty rumble has been brewing on drought resistant GMO maize (more properly “water efficient”) as a strategy to adapt to climate change. All the tired old tropes of the GMO controversy get trotted out. What’s weird, though, is that the whole thing happens as though there were no alternatives. As though GMO Maize was the one true way to skin a cat.

This is preposterous. African farmers have been dealing with drought for years, hell, for millennia. It’s been literally thousands of years since they domesticated sorghum and millet, crops uniquely suited to drought-prone agroecologies.

While you’re shouting yourself hoarse over some exotic lab-based technique, they’re out there doing what they’ve always done: planting crops that will grow even with stunningly little rainfall.

The GMO debate is blind to sorghum and millet, just like it’s blind to cowpea, pigeonpea, and all the other drought resistant crops farmers in South Asia have been planting forever to deal with drought. And since nobody (with some few, genuinely heroic exceptions) gives a crap about these orphaned crops, nobody gets really worked up about the boring old strategies that could hugely increase their usefulness as food security crops.

Take a particular bugbear of mine: the sorghum value chain. In East Africa, most sorghum is eaten as porridge. Sorghum porridge is – how to put this kindly? – really gross. It’s not very nutritious either. To increase the bioavailability of the nutrients naturally found in sorghum, you have to ferment it.And indeed some places in Africa have a tradition of making Kisra, which is a really yummy, injera-like sorghum-based sourdough bread.

It’s just that this is what that process looks like:

From beginning to end, it takes a week, and generally is too much work for people to take on except on special occasions. There is no industry anywhere in Africa producing Kisra, because there’s no basic research to understand the biochemistry of sorghum fermentation.

So we have a delicious, culturally-prized, nutritionally-rich product of a naturally drought resistant crop that smallholders are familiar and comfortable with…and it just sits there, while we’re off chasing the latest shiny transgenic controversy. I hate that.

The knowledge intensity bar to improving and formalizing kisra-making is way, way lower than the knowledge-intensity bar to genetically modifying maize. And yet is anyone seriously working on industrializing the kisra-making process? Come, now, we’re trying to have a serious debate here.

There’s plenty more disinterest where that came from: Basic agronomic research into pigeonpea improvement? Yawwwwwn. Developing the sorghum value chain? Zzzzzzzz. Investing in new millet hybrids that are even better adapted to drought? Be serious now!

You get crap click-through rates on stories like those. (Believe me, I know.)

But put GMOs in a story’s headline and suddenly, hey! it’s viral!

The same thing goes for Hybrids – a technology that, shockingly, even some people working in the field in Africa don’t realize is not the same as genetic modification.

I like to think of hybrids as the boringest development intervention – so dull eyes just sort of glaze over the second you say the word. But they do 90% of what GM Crops can do, at a fraction of the cost, with no transgenic manipulation, and have done for almost 100 years now.

You could end hunger in Africa next year if you could deliver the right amount of hybrid seed, fertilizer and agronomic advice to the right farmers. You could!

But are we talking about this?

No, we’re not. We’re talking about how the thought of putting a GM tomato in your salad makes you feel.

In a saner world we’d be discussing genetic modification for water efficiency as one item in a portfolio of strategies to adapt to climate change. But we don’t live in a saner world. We live in a world where this placard got made.

My conclusion? The GMO Debate is the Count Dracula of the rural development world: it sucks the life out of anything it comes into contact with. Its allure is magnetic, its ability to get people who’ve never given a second’s thought to the lives of African farmers to click on a link is legendary, its sexiness is undenied. Editors love that shit. And so what should be one (marginallish) aspect of a much broader discussion ate the discussion.

But it’s bad for us. We need to stop.

12 thoughts on “GMOs are a Red Herring”

  1. Ok, so you’re talking about food and chemistry, that’s totally not boring in my book!

    But that thing about kisra really resonated with me. Basically, it follows a trend seen all over the world, the French crêpes, Mexican tortillas, South American arepas. And yet you would never eat those raw. From what I see, the fermentation process for sorghum is that much more difficult. But that shouldn’t be a big mystery to crack.

    We know that fermentation requires the breakdown of complex starches into simple sugars and then the digestion of those sugars by yeasts. My chemical guesses are that sorghum probably has less simple sugars and more starch than say wheat or corn flour (which is advantageous in dry systems as polymerization releases water) and, following the same theme, that adequate yeasts have not been found, as yeast usually thrives in humid atmospheres, like Belgian monasteries or Mexican fields.

    But actually, what we need to learn more about this process doesn’t even take a chemistry lab, you can do it in your kitchen playing around with water content, heat, sugar and different yeasts. Maybe a bit of biology could be used to find a good type of yeast in a lab, but that’s orders of magnitude simpler and cheaper than playing around with genetics. Of course, there are also variables in terms of making the “flour”, but cracking that mystery would also be huge. Think about how little it takes to make a crêpe or an arepa if you have the flour, that’s minutes, not a week. (Well, let’s not bring your old ways into this debate)

    1. For sure! ICRISAT is top of my list of heroic exceptions. My concern is that their work is totally MIA from the public debate. To the extreme that a shocking number of people writing about these topics don’t seem to actually realize that hybrids are a thing, and separate from GMOs!

    1. No, GMO’s are not an answer to any question (whether right or wrong) anymore than wrenches are an answer to practical transportation (because you use wrenches to make automobiles).

      Genetic engineering is only a tool. It does certain things very well. Some of the crops mentioned here, in fact, are being targeted for transgenic improvement such as the cow pea (see http://www.aatf-africa.org/userfiles/CowpeaFAQ.pdf ) and the pigeon pea (see http://ibnlive.in.com/generalnewsfeed/news/hau-develops-bt-pigeonpea/826257.html ).

  2. It takes 20+ years (for example, Golden Rice) to get a GMO product to market and huge funds. So companies will only invest in the crops likely to bring huge returns. By raising unfounded fears, what the protesters do is block the potential this technology has, without offering any viable alternatives. All the chatter is from people who are worried about getting an allergy from their arugula, not those struggling with hunger and disease.Debating in those terms is a misdirection of energy, I certainly agree. Now, if someone were to discover kisra as the new quinoa and put it on a shelf at Whole Foods, things might be different…!

  3. So, I’m totally talking to both the (1) health sciences team, and (2) the food sciences team at our partner university in Kenya. Surely – surely – if you put those minds together they should make some sort of progress on this issue. Something that hadn’t come across my desk, but I’m very intrigued!

  4. Friends, the debate is even more boring, since it is clear since decades that transgenesis and conventional breeding are based on the same molecular processes – and yes, the result is with modern methods more precise, safer and offers new possibilities of breeding for sure, see

    Ammann, K. (2014), Genomic Misconception: a fresh look at the biosafety of transgenic and conventional crops. A plea for a process agnostic regulation, New Biotechnology, 31, 1, pp. 1-17, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871678413000605 AND http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nbt.2013.04.008 AND open source: http://www.ask-force.org/web/NewBiotech/Ammann-Genomic-Misconception-printed-2014.pdf and with full text references for private use: http://www.ask-force.org/web/NewBiotech/Genomic-Misconception-20130415-names-links.pdf AND German Abstract http://www.ask-force.org/web/NewBiotech/Ammann-German-Abstract-Highlights-20130415.pdf

    cheers, Klaus Ammann

  5. I only know kisra as a Sudanese bread made from fermented sorghum, not as a porridge. But malted sorghum porridge was when I was a child and continues to be extremely popular in southern africa, under the brand name Maltabella (http://www.bokomocereals.co.za/products/porridges/brand/maltabella). It’s delicious. You should try it. (See http://www.timeslive.co.za/food/2013/01/23/rumblings-maltabella for a paean to Maltabella.) Sadly, you can’t buy it in Perú. But we have other lovely grains.

    Yes, I know that malting sorghum is non-trivial, probably on the same level as fermenting it. But as an industrial product, it’s pretty well-developed. Nestlé has an enormous sorghum malting factory in Nigeria, and as far as I know it’s used in the Nigerian version of Milo. And possibly other national versions — “malt extract” is pretty unspecific as an ingredient.

    Out of curiosity, I checked the nutritional analysis of sorghum flour against cornmeal, here: http://skipthepie.org/cereal-grains-and-pasta/sorghum/compared-to/cornmeal-whole-grain-yellow/. It could certainly be the case that fermenting — or malting — increases protein digestibility, but I haven’t seen much in the way of evidence; you can make a perfectly good gluten-free muffin using a bit of sorghum flour i the mix, and to my palate it beats rice flour.

  6. What’s this sorghum porridge is horrible and not nutrious. You can tell if a child has eaten maize or sorghum for porridge before going to school. The former is half asleep and the latter is still going strong. If they eat millet better still. At least that is a common view.

    Also, soak it overnight or don’t even bother soaking it – it is still fab.

    The guy above seems to know a bit about Southern Africa. Was in Kenya with some Sadc guys. I had warned them the sadza was horrible in Kenya. They didn’t seem to believe me. I had been before. They had never been there. So got to the destination. Lady was there doing the cooking. Served it up with a big smile. I was chortling away to myself – knew what was coming. Hardly could be eaten and they were sort of waiting for her to go so that they could stop pretending they were eating it. The meat was horrible too. Next day back she comes back. Lovely lady – helpful and enthusiastic. What about dinner she said? Sadc guys in unison – Don’t worry about dinner – we will just make our own – you can go home early. Sat in the house watching them cooking. Served it up with properly cooked nyama. Delicious. Slept well. And these were the guys from Sadc. Have you ever tasted what a SADC gal cooks. Best cooks in the world. Put them in a kitchen with Ramsay and they would tell him to get out because he was spoiling the meat.

    As for GMO[‘s they grow a lot of it in South Africa. Corn GMO. Heavy yielding, better than hybrids and will end starvation and increase wealth of your average subsistence farmer. A modern technology withheld from the working or peasant class in a pretence that it is not good for them and so keeping them in poverty. Monsanto for ever! The real friend of the rural peasant farmer. Well maybe not but I have made my point. Boring development equals give the smallholder the best seed in the world – gmo corn. Poverty, food aid etc massively reduced in one year.

    Who really are the real friends of the peasant farmer.

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