Might sorghum flour lead way to approval of G.M.O.s?

by Morton Sosland
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As shocking as it may be in light of the all too frequent reports of severe hunger and even starvation threatening Africa, that continent is also one of the primary stumbling blocks to global acceptance of genetic modification of wheat and other food grains. Instead of welcoming and even embracing scientific research aimed at changing crops to suit Africa’s growing conditions as well as grains produced in other countries to meet the urgent nutritional needs of millions of people, leaders of many of these needy nations have been in the forefront of rejecting genetic modification. Numerous reasons are cited for this inexplicable behavior. These range from superstition-driven doubts about science as a force in deciding what foods may be grown domestically or imported to an attitude that says if the wealthy nations of Europe have the least doubts about the safety of G.M.O.’s, which they definitely persist in having, then this same caution will decide what can and cannot be imported into Africa. That the U.S. government and American consumers have no such reservations, and indeed have benefited from this science in many crops, except wheat, apparently exerts scant influence on African nations in need.

As hunger and malnutrition have worsened, a few hopeful signs have started to emerge that full-scale rejection might ease. This change has first been detected in South Africa, the most advanced of the sub-Sahara nations. That country’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research sought and won government approval to undertake trials, using experimental fields and greenhouses, to study genetically modified grain sorghum. Primarily used as a feed crop competing with corn in North America, grain sorghum is an important food crop in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The annual sorghum crop in the region is near 26 million tonnes, which is about 30 per cent of the area’s total grain crop of 89 million tonnes. It is the staple food for millions of people, even though it lacks essential nutrients and has poor protein digestibility. As a result, diets relying on sorghum have been found to impair immune systems, associating them with severe health problems like blindness and stunted growth.

According to the International Grains Council, this dietary deficiency in a crop that is relatively well suited to production in the region has prompted creation of the African Bio-fortified Sorghum Project, in which the South African Council is a major participant. The I.G.C. explained, "The aim is to develop a more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum that contains increased levels of essential amino acids, especially lysine, increased levels of vitamins A and E and more available iron and zinc."

At the same time this research is being undertaken in Africa, the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing work at its Grain Quality Laboratory in Manhattan, Kansas, aimed at optimizing, by new milling methods, sorghum flour quality. The U.S. research, primarily targeted at finding food uses for the grain sorghum grown in the central Plains, is looking at many different applications. "Sorghum human food products may be important in the celiac food markets, in whole grain foods and in functional foods," the A.R.S. said.

It is the African research that has the most promise when it comes to discovering ways genetic modification may be used to change a food that has an array of serious negatives into a food that may help end nutritional deficiencies. It is not beyond reality to hope that progress with modifying sorghum in South Africa would encourage countries of Africa to stop turning their backs on scientifically enhanced crops. Realizing just how much is possible could eventually spur pressure in favor of genetic modification from a part of the world that currently plays an important role in its unfounded rejection. It would be wonderful if Africa could lead the way in bringing about improved production and enhanced foods.

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