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March 12, 2008

Project aims to boost nutritional value of sorghum through gene modification

Will sorghum find its way back to the dining tables of East Africa?

A new research project currently in progress aims to do that through the use of the controversial gene modification technology.

The grain, ranked the fifth most important staple food in the world after wheat, rice, maize and barley is to be improved to nutritious levels in an initiative said to be aimed at alleviating hunger and malnutrition in Africa.

A consortium of nine global scientific research bodies under the Africa Bio-fortified Sorghum (ABS) project is to develop the nutritional value of sorghum. The project seeks to develop more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum varieties for different climatic regions containing increased levels of essential amino acids, vitamins A and E, iron and zinc.

Through genetic engineering, selected genes, mainly from plant sources, will be introduced into the genome of sorghum in a gradual way that the researchers say will not compromise other attributes of the grain performance.

Prof Abdulkadir Egal, a researcher at the Vaal University of Technology in South Africa, says the effort to deliver nutrition to the populace through sorghum is viable as the crop is native to the continent. According to him, a diet based primarily on ordinary sorghum is not adequate to meet the nutritional growth requirements of children and adults, and needs to be supplemented with additional proteins and micro-nutrients.

“In many developing countries where poor families predominantly depend on plant-based diets, deficiencies of these micro-nutrients are common,” he says. “Infants, children, as well as pregnant and lactating mothers are mostly at risk due to their heavy nutritional needs.”

If the project succeeds, its backers say it will significantly improve the health of more than 300 million people globally.

Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from health problems associated with vitamin and mineral deficiency. The situation is made worse by arid climates and poor soils that cannot support the production of the foods like fruits and vegetables needed to naturally supply these essential nutrients. It is estimated that 80 per cent of children in the region receive inadequate amounts of Vitamin A, half the entire population suffers from iron deficiency, while a third have zinc deficiency.

Sorghum is one of the few crops that grow well in arid climates, but it lacks most essential nutrients, hence the need to improve it.

Dr Florence Wambugu, the chief executive of Africa Harvest, says that in the wake of global warming, food security cannot be achieved without improving indigenous grain crops like sorghum and other staple foods. She added that the nine-member consortium had adopted the GM technology because the regular breeding approaches cannot produce the desired results. “We hope to substantially improve grain digestibility and make the essential vitamins and micro-nutrients available,” she added.

The ABS project chose sorghum for its drought resistant nature, unlike other cereals such as maize and rice which require high rainfall.

Briefing a forum on the progress of the project in Pretoria, Dr Wambugu urged African governments to enact laws and policies that create an enabling environment for bio-technology.
“Most African countries either lack or are in the process of developing policy and institutional arrangements to effectively deal with the challenge of bio-technology” she said.

The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the tune of $18.5 million.

Daniel Kamanga, head of Communication and Public Acceptance at Africa Harvest, said “We intend to build scientific capacity through training African scientists to help in undertaking research.” He added that there are few trained personnel in modern bio-technology and only a few ill-equipped laboratories.

Sorghum is an African crop that originated in the northern East highlands of Ethiopia and Sudan before spreading throughout Africa and into India. On average, sorghum accounts for only 4 per cent of the annual total cereals production in the world hence its poor rank in terms of output and total area planted.

Like corn, sorghum can be grown under a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. Unlike corn, however sorghum’s yield under different conditions is not so varied; consequently, it is grown primarily in arid areas where corn cannot flourish without substantial irrigation.

The East African

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