With the news last week of products containing trace amounts of GM rice being removed from sale here in NZ, I thought I would cover the engineering of another food crop. The Cassava plant is apparently the third largest source of carbohydrates for human food in the world, I’d never heard of it before last week. This plant can be the prime source of sustenance for families in Africa, however it also produces significant levels of cyanide when it is harvested and must be extensively processed before consumption, a task that can take up to several days. It is also relatively poor in vitamins and minerals. As if this wasn’t enough the plant is susceptible to infection by the geminivirus which can reduce yields by 30 percent to 50 percent in many areas in sub-Saharan Africa. With these drawbacks in mind it has been the subject of a genetic engineering project at Ohio State University, the Biocassava project funded by the Gates foundation, to make it a more complete food as well as safer to eat.
The plant does have it’s good points though, one of which being that it can be left in the ground growing for up to three years and so can provide a sustained food source. Given that the plant is often the primary source of calories for a great many people, and for some of those people may make up the bulk of the only meal they eat a day, the project has attempted to make the root a more complete food. The researchers have been able to help the plant accumulate more minerals eg iron and retain precursor vitamins to help your body make A, E, + some B complex vitamins. They have also given the plant increased virus resistance and attempted to reduce the amount of cyanide int the root.
All of which means that the Cassava plant will soon become more productive (through reduced incidence of disease) as well as easier to process and a more healthful meal. It is possible that these changes may even turn the Cassava from a subsistence farming type crop into an income generation crop. The engineered crop is currently undergoing field trails in Puerto Rico with further testing in African countries slated for 2009. Reflecting on the great strides we have made in this sort of engineering and the enormous rewards that can be gained by it’s use I occasionally despair of those who dismiss it with a knee-jerk reaction. I shake my head every time I see a “Keep NZ GE Free” bumper sticker wondering if the driver even understands what they are protesting against.