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.