Aren’t steroids illegal?

Karl, from Inoculated Mind, describes Nature magazine’s selection of plant scientist Richard Sayre (as one of five crop scientists who could change the world) as “a good pick.” Sayre’s pet project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is to build a super cassava; 500 g will contain the daily requirements of protein, vitamin A and E, iron and zinc. Karl describes BioCassava Plus as “like golden rice on steroids.” And I guess whether you think that’s a good thing or not depends on what you think of Golden Rice and what you think of steroids.

We’ve crossed swords on Golden Rice before now; I’m not going to go there. I’ll just repeat that I remain unconvinced that Golden Rice will measurably increase the nutritional health of people outside the mostly urban market economy, and that if they were to increase their vitamin A precursor intake with other foods it would, in my view, deliver greater total good.

I’ve made my thoughts on super cassava known too. And again, I repeat the fundamental question; when you have engineered one variety of cassava and planted it across Africa, how are you going to respond when the entire population falls prey to a newly virulent form of some disease?

The answer to nutritional deficiencies is not a super variety of any staple. It is diversity. People in the cities might be able to afford super-staples, and the farmers supplying it might do OK. But they will not help poor farmers either to earn a living or to improve their own nutrition.

6 Replies to “Aren’t steroids illegal?”

  1. Jeremy, I think you should take the time to read about the BioCassava Plus project before making statements about what the end result will or will not be. They’re not engineering one variety to be planted across the continent. They will not only be engineering the traits into popular cultivars, but the tools and constructs will be handed over to those African countries so that they can engineer those traits into any other cassava cultivar that they want in the future.

    There’s one very compelling reason why Cassava is a good choice for improvement, it is one of the only crops that subsistence farmers can rely on when severe drought hits. What will fulfill their needs when this occurs.

    There’s also another compelling reason to work on Cassava – it is only beginning to be actively bred – there’s a lot of genetic potential for improvement, and wild relatives that might tickle your fancy. (One is part of their project.)

    But here’s my point of contention. I am 100% behind a diversity of approaches, and I applaud your speaking up for approaches that do not get enough attention. But in the course of arguing for a diversity of crops, you are arguing against other approaches that will help. And as I have written on my blog before, what about the people that might be helped by the approaches you are arguing against, who are missed by those approaches you are arguing for?

    I just did a grad student seminar on BioCassava Plus, and I’m going to talk to Richard Sayre and see what of his research-in-progress that he shared with me I could publish on the web. I’ll write a good post for Biofortified on it.

    Hey it’s a good idea to keep your sword sharp. You never know, we might meet in a forest someday:

    Hee hee.

  2. @Inoculated Mind

    “[Cassava] is one of the only crops that subsistence farmers can rely on when severe drought hits.”

    Is it also one of the only foods that is available when drought hits?

    I am not against biofortification per se, but is there empirical evidence that shows it really helps poor people and that it is effective compared to other approaches? Or at least some piece of nutrition research that shows this is a reasonable expectation?

    Even so, there may be arguments in favour of biofortication. Robert pointed out to me that vegetables may cause diarrhea. If mothers therefore decide to give only rice to their little children, Golden Rice may give those children a bit more Vitamin A. But again, would effective methods to process vegetables not be a more valuable contribution in this situation?

    By the way, William Engdahl has a funny argument against Golden Rice in his Seeds of Destruction. He says it may cause toxic levels of Vitamin A. On the same page he also says the Vitamin A content of Golden Rice is not high enough to be effective.

    In my mind, the intellectual level of debate on these issues can only go up when we take ex-ante evaluation more seriously. Gadgets, fads and gurus do little against poverty.

  3. Are there any “success stories” at all? And if not, why not? In part because the transformed varieties aren’t available yet. But there must be analogues, and of course, crops that are ‘naturally’ high in certain micronutrients. Such as orange fleshed sweetpotato.

    It is easy enough to predict that people would get healthier if they have a vitamin A deficiency and ate these sweetpotatoes. But how to make that happen? Not trivial).

    I am not against biofortification, but it is not entirely true – as Inno M. suggests – that we can try everything. Money is scarce (by definition). Money on biofortification could also be spend on campaigns for clean water and washing hands. Might have a much bigger health impact. Someone must have looked at all this.

  4. As for biofortification with transgenics, it is too early to say anything about whether or not they have worked because they have not been tested. But I do know of at least one case of biofortification achieved through traditional breeding that has been shown to work, iron-rich rice.

    As for a population-level study to test the implementation of the rice, I don’t know if there is something. I know that there has been some research on the acceptance possibilities of Golden Maize in Africa, considering that there’s a stigma against eating yellow maize.

    What I find interesting about the golden rice case is that the opposition to it has been ready to declare that it will both: 1) not provide enough pro-vitamin A and that 2) it will provide a dangerous amount of pro-vitamin A. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    I’m not sure about comparing a biofortification project to clean water efforts or washing hands, but compared to other methods of biofortification such as vitamin supplements, it compares favorably.
    Regardless of the method used to intervene, it will cost millions of dollars to reach so many people. Following the argument about impact vs. cost, biofortification can reach a huge number of people and be able to continue to provide nutrition in future years.

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