Giant Cassava Eats Africa!


Oh, all right, that headline was a tease. The headline might probably better read: "Giant Cassava Feeds Africa!"

That happy outcome might be possible if anti-biotech activists would get out of the way of researchers at Ohio State University who have developed a genetically enhanced cassava plant that grows two and half times bigger than current varieties. According to the press release describing the research:

The researchers used a gene from the bacterium E. coli to genetically modify cassava plants. The plants, which were grown in a greenhouse, produced roots that were an average of 2.6 times larger than those produced by regular cassava plants.

"Not only did these plants produce larger roots, but the whole plant was bigger and had more leaves," [OSU researcher Richard] Sayre said. Both the roots and leaves of the cassava plant are edible.

Cassava is the primary food source for more than 250 million Africans–about 40 percent of the continent's population. And the plant's starchy tuberous root is a substantial portion of the diet of nearly 600 million people worldwide.

Other researchers have developed a genetically modified cassava plant that resists the cassava mosaic virus which periodically destroys about half of Africa's crop. A combination of the two enhancements might go a long way toward helping to feed hungry poor people in some parts of Africa.

The world is awash in food, but stupid government agricultural and trade policies combined with lack of purchasing power means that 800 million people remain undernourished. Fortunately, it is easier to fix problems in crop productivity than it is to fix destructive government policies. The hope is that biotech breakthroughs could provide what amount to technical end runs for the world's poorest farmers around such policies.

Disclosure: I own no stock in ag biotech companies nor in Ohio State University.

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  1. Don’t you know that people must starve for our principles? We must give them anemic ‘aid’ packages, not crossbred plants that provide more sustenance than their predecessors.

  2. Oh, no…

    Attack of the killer Frankenfood!!!

    If anyone saw the Penn and Teller: Bullshit! episode about bio-engineered food, you would be amazed how these completely moronic, ignorant anti-biotech people actually sway masses.

    Hopefully, we’ll learn one day, before too many people have to die in the name of anti-capitalism.

  3. Yeah,
    Penn and Teller. They’ll give you the real scoop on any issue. They wouldn’t mischaracterize the opposition in any way. Couldn’t be that they show the idiots on the fringe to represent the whole issue… nah. They would never do that.

    That said, as Mr. Bailey points out. The problem is not in the amount of food available, on balance, but on the availability of food where it is most needed. Policies whereby farmers are not allowed to use seeds from this year’s crop to plant next years (only enforced for biotech crops) hardly help the situation. Designing better crops may or may not be a worthwhile enterprise. But without fixes on the way we think about hunger and how to address it, they only add to the irony of a world awash in both food and hunger.

  4. Next, they are going to give them stingers and the ability to uproot themselves and walk about.

  5. MainstreamMan said, “Designing better crops may or may not be a worthwhile enterprise”

    So since the problem is availability of food where it is most needed, there’s no reason to offer farmers a way to produce more food locally? If there really isn’t a lack of food at all, and it’s all just bad politics keeping food from being distributed, that still wouldn’t be an argument for denying anybody a better way of producing food. Explain to me the ‘may not’ part of the quoted sentence above.

  6. “Designing better crops may or may not be a worthwhile enterprise.”

    That says it all right there. What the hell are you talking about? Of course it is a worthwhile enterprise. Why is the concept of more food being good and less food and starvation being bad so god damned hard to grasp? More importantly, if you increase farming yields, that means you need less farmland to feed a given number of people. This reduces land use and helps the environment. Yet, it may or may not be worth it to try and develop better crops.

  7. That said, as Mr. Bailey points out. The problem is not in the amount of food available, on balance, but on the availability of food where it is most needed. Policies whereby farmers are not allowed to use seeds from this year’s crop to plant next years (only enforced for biotech crops) hardly help the situation. Designing better crops may or may not be a worthwhile enterprise. But without fixes on the way we think about hunger and how to address it, they only add to the irony of a world awash in both food and hunger.

    There is no reason bio-engineered can’t be replanted. The whole biotech intellectual property issue is a straw man. The same sort of intellectual property abuse goes on with patents, trademarks, music sharing, and other things. If you have a problem with intellectual property abuse, then address that and not biotech which is a completly seperate issue.

    There is nothing, whatsoever, preventing governments, universities, and private organizations from developing biotech crops and putting them in the public domain, free to be used by whoever they want. Already there are hundreds of foodstuffs that have been developed and are ready for use in the third world, no strings attached. In fact, anti-capitalist Cuba is one of the countries on the forefront of biotech crop research, so spare us the fearmongering about “the big evil corporations”.

    The whole anti-biotech crowd are just as narrow minded supersticious zealots as the people who think every fertalized eggs is “one of gods children”. It is time we properly categorize this people in the same group as the people who want intelligent design taught in schools, or Gaia Theory taught in schools. or want stem cell research banned, or want abortion banned, etc. These are reactionary zealots who want their religious beliefs forced on everyone.

  8. MainStreamMan,

    Policies whereby farmers are not allowed to use seeds from this year’s crop to plant next years (only enforced for biotech crops) hardly help the situation.

    Myth. No such “terminator” seeds exist on the market today, and it is unlikely that they will exist any time in the near future.

  9. one interesting point.

    Have any of you ever seen a muture Cassava plant up close?

    It looks alot like Hemp/marijuanna plants.

    a Key difference is the stem, it is reddish and square, whereas most hemp varieties are round and green stemmed (IIRC).

    Is it clear that this new cassava plant is nutirtionally the same as the normal varieties?

    Aside: as I understand it, raw cassava is slightly toxic (cyanogenic glucosides), cooking fixes this, how about this new version?

  10. MainStreamMan,

    Of course P&T overemphasize the fringe as representative of the opposition, but unlike any other info-tainment outlet, at least they tell you that they’re full of shit sometimes.

    Also a warning to anyone who opposes me:
    You better use perfect grammar and punctuation, for I have an English Degree and will shred thee to silly, little pieces.

  11. By the way, isn’t cassava the crop that is full of cyanide? Did they do something about this?

    The “Agatha Christie” plant…

  12. Adriana,
    Yes, as I said, you cook it.

  13. Policies whereby farmers are not allowed to use seeds from this year’s crop to plant next years (only enforced for biotech crops) hardly help the situation.

    This is not an issue pertaining to GMO crops only. It is my understanding that the main corn crop in this country (the F1000 Hybrid) produces kernals that does not take to replanting. That’s what hybrids ofter do. Especially one as cross bred as the F1000.

  14. Ron, it’s The Ohio State University.

  15. Isn’t that the “Luckeye Legal Department”?

  16. Isn’t that the “Luckeye legal department”?

  17. An end run?

    Let’s pick a famine in Africa. The Somali famine of the early 1990s, for example.

    The people couldn’t grow food on their land, because of the weather. Food relief convoys couldn’t get through, because the rebels were stopping those going to areas that supported their enemies.

    Explain to me how it would have made any difference if the parched fields had been planted with giant cassava? Or if the halted aid trucks had been loaded with giant cassava?

  18. Or another famous famine, the “We Are the World” Ethiopian famine in the 1980s.

    Once again, giant cassava wouldn’t have grown in the drought. And, once again, the actions of the government that prevented aid from reaching the people would have had exactly the same effect if it was giant cassava, rather than grain, rotting in the cargo ships.

    Darfur. Southern Sudan. Zimbabwe. Biafra. Go ahead, pick your own. Can someone please explain to me how giant cassava plants would have reduced the human suffering in any of these places?

  19. joe,

    Or let’s cherry pick a famine.

  20. joe-

    You’re probably right, none of those famines would have been alleviated by GM food if there’s too little water to grow food and a political obstacle to food delivery from the outside (whether that outside food is donated, purchased, or whatever, if there’s an armed gang intercepting the truck the end result is the same).

    My understanding is that the biggest benefit of GM food is that it would raise farm productivity. Anything that raises agricultural productivity is usually a good thing for a developing country. Farmers can achieve a higher standard of living, people can buy food more cheaply, and resources (including labor) previously tied up in agricultural production can instead be used for other purposes, reaping the benefits of a diversified economy where people specialize and trade. The usual stuff.

  21. joe,

    First pick a place where cassava’s are grown. It is a West and Central African crop. In other words, it is a tropical plant.

  22. The development of high-quality cassava flour could help many developing countries reduce their dependence on imported grains. One report has stated that a 15 percent substitution of cassava flour for wheat flour could save Nigeria close to US$ 15 million a year in foreign exchange.


    I think joe’s problem is that he fails to realize that malnutrition is a significant problem outside regions like Zimbabwe, etc. where government efforts have brought about disaster.

  23. Of course that is likely why joe is conflating the term used by Ron (“undernourished”) with his term (“famine”).

  24. Darfur. Southern Sudan. Zimbabwe. Biafra. Go ahead, pick your own. Can someone please explain to me how giant cassava plants would have reduced the human suffering in any of these places?

    It wouldn’t. But so what? Just because it can’t eradicate all badness doesn’t mean it still can’t do a lot of good. What you’re saying is like criticizing a new wonder drug because not everybody in the world has access to it.

  25. thoreau’s anti-poverty, pro-growth argument seems about right. My objection is to framing it as an anti-hunger argument, to take advantage of the intuitive “more food = less hunger argument.”

    Yes, reducing poverty will reduce hunger, but if the issue is the cash yield of crops grown for market, just go from Point A to Point B.

    The headline should have been “Giant Cassava Funds Africa” or somesuch. Could have avoided the whole argument.

  26. joe,

    We could have avoided the whole argument if you hadn’t gone off on your famine tangent.

    Yes, reducing poverty will reduce hunger…

    Cassava is a largely subsistence crop; though it is used in Europe for feeding cattle.

    I think the basic problem is that neither joe nor thoreau have much familiarity with where, for what purpose, etc. cassava is grown for.

  27. Anyway, I think we can all agree that advancements in biotechnology will aid in alleviating poverty, as will reforms in government policies regarding trade, agriculture, etc. Of course why some have to reflesively deny the benefits of biotechnology is beyond me.

  28. “First pick a place where cassava’s are grown. It is a West and Central African crop. In other words, it is a tropical plant.”


    Actually the plant is South American. Though I have seen it grown in Fiji. YAY for Globalization! It is like a starchy Cucumber and can be used, sparingly, in salads raw; or it can be cooked much like a potato, which is closer in taste.

  29. I thought you soaked cassava in water before cooking to get rid of the cyanide. I don’t see cooking detoxifying cyanide, it’s heat-stable AFAIK.

  30. OKey maybe not ‘raw’ but chilled after cooking…

    “For some smaller-rooted “sweet” varieties, cooking is sufficient to eliminate all toxicity. The larger-rooted “bitter” varieties used for production of flour or starch must be processed to remove the cyanogenic glucosides. The large roots are peeled and then ground into flour, which is then soaked in water, squeezed dry several times, and toasted. The starch grains that float to the surface during the soaking process are also used in cooking.”

    so the bigger ones tend to be more poisonous. This does not bode well for the Giant Killer Cassavae. 😉

  31. Ok, addendum to my previous comment. I defer to Wikipedia which points out that the cyanide isn’t present as free cyanide and “For some smaller-rooted “sweet” varieties, cooking is sufficient to eliminate all toxicity.”

  32. For context, california natives used to eat acorn-mush made from acorns boiled many times over to leechout the toxic tanin. Not a big deal, one just has to pay careful attention the words of the village wisepersons.

  33. Sam,

    Yes, I know that it was originally a South American crop. I’ve actually watched those films where they turn it into a beverage by spitting into it. The point is that in the context of African nutrition it is a West and Central African crop.

  34. Interesting how not taking a position on the benefits of GM crops makes H&Runners think I oppose them.

  35. I farm and use GMO’s.Anyone think to ask the people growing the crop how they feel about the issue. After investing time ,money and my labor in a crop it is irritating to listen to someone who may have grown a flower expound on the imagined dangers of a GMO trait that makes a crop safer,easier to grow ,and increases the yield.

  36. MSM,

    Do you really think every comment here is directed at you?

    Claiming that the jury is still out on the matter (“may or may not” I believe was your statement) is taking a position. A hard to defend position IMHO, given all the benefits that GMO crops have so far provided.

  37. Sure, Bailey, we all know your fully invested in Ohio State U. I bet your geeting a cut on every t short they sell. You aint nothin’ but a collegiate shill for higher learning. All you wants is for GM crops to feed the world to profits your college.

  38. Well this is perhaps good news.

    I would hope that this new Cassava plant
    would be tested on animals and people before
    being released. For example, if it turned out
    that you needed to eat twice as much to get
    the same amount of nutrients, then it would
    not do the people of Africa (or anywhere else)
    much good.

    That goes double for the anti-viral Cassava.

    Unfortunately because GM crops are considered
    legally identical to regular crops, there is
    no guarantee that they will be tested. Hopefully
    the researchers will be responsible enough to demand
    at least some part of the budget be for such

  39. Phileleutherus Lipsiensis

    Why do you assume that my comment was directed at anyone other than those whose comments were directed at me?

    As for my point about the relationship between intellectual property and GM crops…

    “Monsanto Co’s seed police snared soy farmer Homan McFarling in 1999, and the company is demanding he pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for alleged technology piracy.

    McFarling’s sin? He saved seed from one harvest and replanted it the following season, a revered and ancient agricultural practice.

    “My daddy saved seed. I saved seed,” said McFarling, 62, who still grows soy on the 2,000-hectare family farm in Shannon, Mississippi, and is fighting the agribusiness giant in court.

    Saving Monsanto’s seeds, genetically engineered to kill bugs and resist weed sprays, violates provisions of the company’s contracts with farmers.

    Since 1997, Monsanto has filed similar lawsuits 90 times in 25 states against 147 farmers and 39 agriculture companies, according to a report issued by The Centre for Food Safety, a biotechnology foe.

    In a similar case a year ago, Tennessee farmer Kem Ralph was sued by Monsanto and sentenced to eight months in prison after he was caught lying about a truckload of cotton seed he hid for a friend.

    Ralph’s prison term is believed to be the first criminal prosecution linked to Monsanto’s crackdown. Ralph has also been ordered to pay Monsanto more than $US1.7 million ($A2.24 million).

    The company itself says it annually investigates about 500 “tips” that farmers are illegally using its seeds and settles many of those cases before a lawsuit is filed.

    In this way, Monsanto is attempting to protect its business from pirates in much the same way the entertainment industry does when it sues underground digital distributors exploiting music, movies and video games.

    In the process, it has turned farmer on farmer and sent private investigators into small towns to ask prying questions of friends and business acquaintances.

    Monsanto’s licensing contracts and litigation tactics are coming under increased scrutiny as more of the planet’s farmland comes under genetically engineered cultivation.

    Some 80 million hectares of the world’s farms grew biotech crops last year, an increase of 20 per cent from 2003, according to a separate report released recently.

    Many of the farmers Monsanto has sued say, as McFarling claims, that they didn’t read the company’s technology agreement close enough. Others say they never received an agreement in the first place.

    The company counters that it sues only the most egregious violations and is protecting the 300,000 law-abiding US farmers who annually pay a premium for its technology. Soy farmers, for instance, pay a “technology fee” of about $US6.50 ($A8.55) an acre (0.4 hectares) each year.

    Some 85 per cent of the US soy crop is genetically engineered to resist Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, a trait many farmers say makes it easier to weed their fields and ultimately cheaper to grow their crops.

    “It’s a very efficient and cost-effective way to raise soybeans and that’s why the market has embraced it,” said Ron Heck, who grows 360 hectares of genetically engineered soybeans in Perry, Iowa.

    Heck, who is also chairman of the American Soybean Association, said he doesn’t mind buying new seed each year and appreciates Monsanto’s crackdown on competitors who don’t pay for their seed.

    “You can save seed if you want to use the old technology,” Heck said.

    The company said the licensing agreement protects its more than

    600 biotech-related patents and ensures a return on its research and development expenses, which amount to more than $US400 million ($A526.87 million) annually.

    “We have to balance our obligations and our responsibilities to our customers, to our employees and to our shareholders,” said Scott Baucum, Monsanto’s chief intellectual property protector.

    Still, Monsanto’s investigative tactics are sowing seeds of fear and mistrust in some farming communities, company critics say.

    Monsanto encourages farmers to call a company hotline with piracy tips, and private investigators in its employ act on leads with visits to the associates of suspect farmers.

    Baucum acknowledged that the company walks a fine line when it sues farmers.

    “It is very uncomfortable for us,” Baucum said. “They are our customers and they are important to us.”

    The Centre for Food Safety established its own hotline recently where farmers getting sued can receive aid. It also said it hopes to convene a meeting among defence lawyers to develop legal strategies to fight Monsanto.

    The company said it has gone to trial five times and has never lost a legal fight against an accused pirate. The US Supreme Court in 1980 allowed for the patenting of genetically engineered life forms and extended the same protections to altered plants in 2001. Earlier this year, a Washington DC federal appeals court specifically upheld Monsanto’s licence.”

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