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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hunger Roundtable

Air Date: Week of

The 20th Anniversary of the United Nations' World Food Day highlights the need for continued work in the fight against world hunger. Author Richard Manning and Robert Mwanga, a research scientist from Uganda, join host Steve Curwood to discuss the latest developments in biotechnology and how they will play a key role in the fight against global hunger.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Almost a billion people on the planet don't get enough to eat. We know that fact as we mark the twentieth anniversary of World Food Day, and its theme for this year: A Millennium Free from Hunger. Crop failure and poverty are two leading causes of world hunger, and increasingly developing nations are turning to biotechnology as a solution. In his new book, Food's Frontier, Richard Manning chronicles some of these projects. He joins me, along with Robert Mwanga, an agronomist from Uganda whom Dick Manning profiles in his book about the next green revolution.

MANNING: The first green revolution was placed on what one scientist called an easy money trick. And basically, it increased the yields of crops, specifically grain crops like rice and wheat, by making the plants shorter. That sounds very simple, but it did allow the plant to put its biomass into seed. At the same time they became more efficient in water, things like that. So they boosted yields astronomically by that fairly easy trick. The people who have done that work and are still doing that work have put their heads together over the last few years and said, "You know, we really can't get much more blood out of that turnip. That trick, that technological trick, is now at its limit." At the same time, they also realized things like chemical fertilizers and pesticides are taking their toll on the environment, and we can't go on doing things the way we've done them in the past. So, there needs to be a whole new set of technologies and ideas for increasing yield, at the same time that we pay a lot more attention to the quality of the environment. And that's really what the second green revolution will look like.

CURWOOD: Is the second green revolution a genetic engineering revolution that people are very concerned about? Please explain to me the role that you think biotechnology and genetic engineers should play in combating world hunger.

MANNING: Well, it's going to play a role, there's no question about that. And we first need to draw a distinction between biotechnology, which is a whole set of technologies, and the smaller area of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is simply placing the genes, a hunk of genes, out of one species into another to pass along a trait. Biotechnology includes that, but it also includes things like reading the genome of a plant to understand exactly how it works, but not altering it in any way. So for instance, in Robert's program, he uses genetic markers to assist his breeding, but he doesn't change the genetics of that program. That level of biotechnology will be relatively uncontroversial. It will be an enormous tool. It cuts in half the time that Robert needs to field-test his variety, so he can get good quality food to the people in, say, four years instead of eight years. That's enormously important.

CURWOOD: Robert, I want to turn to you now. Tell me, what role do you see biotechnology playing in your own work in Uganda?

MWANGA: We have major problems on sweet potato diseases, specifically viruses. And bugs, specifically sweet potato weevil. If farmers don't harvest the crop promptly during a dry spell, the weevil will destroy the whole crop, and the crop will be lost. Now, the technology has the advantage that we can make fast progress to identify the genes that are resistant, and for the weevil there is at the moment no resistance that has been identified to last a long time. But with biotechnology, we think we can come up with resistant types.

CURWOOD: How important would that be to the folks in Uganda if you could do that?

MWANGA: Wow, that would be a big jump! Because as I have said, if we have developed a resistant sweet potato that can stay in the ground without being attacked by the weevil, then the farmer will harvest all his crop.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, where are people hungry in this world? And in particular, I'm wondering, do we find these people in cities or in rural areas?

MANNING: Well, we find them in both areas, both rural and city. There are different levels of hunger and poverty in both places. But the universal is, they tend to be in the developing world, particularly concentrated in Africa, which has enormous problems feeding its people. A few in Southeast Asia, and some pockets in Latin America. But by far the worst is in Africa.

CURWOOD: Richard, in your book you talked about how the food crisis would be in better shape if people in the West seeking to help had a better understanding of how various societies and ecosystems work. You had a number of examples. In Africa, you talked about tannin and an ancient way of removing it, and how it confused folks who thought they were improving things. I wonder if you could tell that story to us now.

MANNING: It's an interesting example of making a mistake through our best intentions. People eat sorghum in Africa, and it's a really important grain crop. And it tends to be quite dark brown, and dark brown means it has tannin in it, which is bitter. That's what makes tea bitter. And it's also less nutritional when the tannin is in there. So, some plant breeders in the United States understood that they could breed that out and make a light-colored sorghum that would be far more nutritious and taste better, and therefore they'd do a favor for the people of Africa. What they didn't know was about a predator bird that lived in the area. And the bird is ubiquitous. It's like a sparrow here in the United States; it's everywhere. And as soon as they took the tannin out of the sorghum, the bird attacked it, because that bitter taste was keeping the bird off as well. And of course, the people in Africa knew that to a degree. And they had learned in their villages to process their sorghum with wood ash, which itself removed the tannin, and they were just fine before this whole system came along. But as soon as the system took the tannin out, then the birds ate all their crop.

CURWOOD: Robert, how has this kind of experience happened in Uganda, and in what ways have folks in the global community, in trying to help things, made things worse in Uganda for food?

MWANGA: Well, to some extent, by funding research that does not concentrate on prairie to crops, what is important for the farmers, for the population in Uganda, by focusing on coffee, by focusing on cotton, by focusing on tea, that has kind of led to a lagging behind. And I think in that way, we can say it has had a negative influence.

CURWOOD: Richard, how do you think that we can attain a future of sustainable agriculture?

MANNING: There's no single path to that. We're understanding that the solutions to these issues are as diverse as there are human cultures. And so, we have to understand that we in the developed world have to form partnerships with the people in the developing world. We have to do things like help people like Robert get the education and technical support he needs, but also to work within his country to help his country set its goals and to understand the needs of the people there, so that they can have a life with some dignity.

CURWOOD: Robert, how do politics, political stability, fit into these questions of feeding people?

MWANGA: When there is peace, people can grow crops. They can feed themselves. They can share the surplus. They have better living conditions. And so they have a better livelihood.

MANNING: Steve, I have a suggestion, something I would like to add.

CURWOOD: Go ahead.

MANNING: We talked earlier about what we can do in the developing world, what's important to developing agriculture. And one of the things we almost never think of but is vitally important, and is illustrated by Robert's case, is peace and political stability in an area. Robert had a partner when he started out in this program, and the two of them were putting together a grant to do their work. And we said sweet potatoes are important in Uganda, but they're also important in eight other countries in the area, or seven other countries in the area. And one of those was Rwanda. And Robert's partner was a plant breeder in Rwanda, who knew more about sweet potatoes, probably, than most of the people in the region. And as they were getting their program together, it's when the troubles broke out in Rwanda. And Robert's partner happened to be Tutsi, and he was taken out in his field and he was hacked to death with a machete. And so, that particular area of Africa lost its expertise in its most important food crop. That's the kind of things that happen when violence breaks out, and violence is really what has left a huge footprint on the work in Africa.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for joining me today. Robert Mwanga is a scientist in Uganda, and Richard Manning is author of Food's Frontier. Thank you both for joining me today.

MANNING: Thank you, Steve.

MWANGA: Thank you.



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