Hunger leaves children susceptible to disease - FEEDING AFRICA GM
EXTRACT: The Danforth Center, a nonprofit biotech center that gives its technology away, has been unable to test its cassava in African soil.
With a recent influx of grant money, the plant scientists are pushing hard for approvals in three nations: Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. The biotech cassava project - which aims to increase both the amount and nutritional quality of food - could reduce the number of hungry people entering hospitals like Queen Elizabeth, Manary says.
GM WATCH COMMENT: The article makes it sound like the Danforth Center has long been hammering on Africa's door offering a viable GM product that could help solve hunger and disease susceptibility in Africa, if only African governments would be sensible and get on board.
This simply isn't true. Only in May of this year, the Danforth Center admitted their GM cassava varieties were not viable because they were failing to provide the virus resistance they were engineered to provide.
And researchers were quoted in one of the previous article in this series as admitting that they had been lucky to avoid their GM cassava being field tested because it would have probably failed to provide virus resistance.
This suggests that any re-engineered GM cassava can barely have left the laboratory. And the previous article also contained an admission that it did not offer "a quick solution" to the problems of cassava farmers.
On top of that its viability is surrounded by uncertainty given the failure of the previous GM cassava some 7 years after it was originally proclaimed a success. That kind of uncertainty poses a terrible risk for the poor and hungry farmers the GM cassava is supposed to help.
So why the massive PR push now to get this moving into the fields of Africa?
The extract above from the article talks about the "recent influx of grant money". And the previous article noted, "This year, Monsanto gave the center $7.5 million more for cassava work."
That work clearly involves not just "pushing hard for approvals in three [African] nations" but turning the project into a PR showcase for poor-washing GMOs - something articles like the ones now coming out of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (with graphic images and sub-headings like "Stunted children") do all too well.
It's a PR showcase Monsanto desperately needs since its previous showcase in Africa - the GM sweet potato - turned out to be an abject failure.
The development specialist, Aaron deGrassi, has noted how while the GM sweet potato project got all the media hype, conventional breeding produced a successful virus resistant sweet potato that increased yields and was popular with farmers, for a small fraction of the cost.
DeGrassi found a similar pattern with other GM showcase projects in Africa, leading him to conclude, "the excitement over certain genetic engineering procedures can divert financial, human, and intellectual resources from focusing on productive research that meets the needs of poor farmers."
Hunger leaves children susceptible to disease
By Eric Hand
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 11 December 2006
A health aide measures the arm circumference of a young Malawian boy at a clinic in Chikweo, Malawi. The number will help measure any growth in the boy's body mass. Half the children in Malawi are stunted, meaning they don't grow as big as they should.
The mothers know that bed
No. 1 is very bad for their sons and daughters.
In the malnutrition ward of Malawi's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the bed next to the nurses' station gets the most attention and the sickest children. In a hospital where one out of every three children die, it is a bed with a high turnover rate.
A visiting English doctor considers moving Gladys Mponda to bed No. 1. She sits limply in her mother's lap and stares, her bulging eyes set deep in a puffy face. The doctor runs through her problems: AIDS, a urinary tract infection, an X-ray showing a shadowy patch on her right lung that could be tuberculosis.
These maladies could kill her. But the root cause of her decline, the reason Gladys came here, is a far more simple and pressing problem: She hadn't eaten enough.
As diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria get global attention and money, some doctors say that donors are overlooking the biggest children's health issue of all: malnutrition, a creeping, insidious disease that rarely captures headlines. Worldwide, 6 million children - more than twice the population of metro St. Louis - die every year because of immune systems weakened by malnutrition, according to the United Nations.
"It dwarfs AIDS," says Washington University pediatrician Mark Manary, who has worked in Africa throughout his career. "Fundamentally, the amount of food (in Africa) is not enough."
Manary is working with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, which is trying to genetically engineer an important African crop, cassava, so that it resists a pandemic virus that has cut yields in half. Scientists also want to fortify the potato-like plant with vitamins and minerals. The Danforth Center, a nonprofit biotech center that gives its technology away, has been unable to test its cassava in African soil.
With a recent influx of grant money, the plant scientists are pushing hard for approvals in three nations: Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. The biotech cassava project - which aims to increase both the amount and nutritional quality of food - could reduce the number of hungry people entering hospitals like Queen Elizabeth, Manary says. Yet some food aid experts say that solving hunger is complicated and not merely a matter of food.
On a map, Malawi is a skinny squiggle, 20 percent smaller than Illinois but with a slightly larger (and exploding) population of 13 million. It is a naked, vulnerable place, denuded of forests, full of dust and utterly dependent on a single, unreliable rainy season.
When the rains don't come, as in recent years, the corn crop fails. Cassava, a leafy plant with bulbous, starchy roots, is what's left.
Even with cassava, a third of the country goes hungry. Half the children in this nation are stunted, meaning they don't grow as big as they should. One out of every six children die before they are 5, about half because of malnutrition.
Worldwide, hunger is declining. But in Malawi, as in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, it is rising with the population. There were 216 million malnourished Africans in 2004, more than double the number of hungry people in 1971. Hunger and malnourishment are defined in Africa as fewer than about 1,800 daily calories.
However, this is a good year for rains in Malawi, and during a visit in June, the harvest season has begun. Most children get two or three daily meals of porridge or pancakes made from corn or cassava.
Malnutrition, though, is not just a matter of calories. Many Malawians don't get enough iron and zinc and vitamin A from their food, Manary says.
A lack of iron can cause anemia and slow brain growth. Zinc deficiencies compromise immune systems. And without vitamin A, the skin loses toughness and eye disease occurs.
The Danforth Center scientists are trying to put these vitamins and minerals, as well as more protein, into the genetically engineered cassava. The scientists also are trying to take two things away from cassava.
First, they hope to remove the triggers that cause the root to rot rapidly after it's pulled from the ground. Second, they want to remove the chemicals in the cassava that make cyanide, a deadly poison.
Many varieties of cassava - the "sweet" ones - can be eaten raw. But "bitter" varieties, though they look like the sweet ones, contain compounds that create cyanide in the body. Some Africans prefer bitter varieties for taste and also practical reasons: the poison is a deterrent to marauding animals and thieving neighbors.
Africans get rid of the poison by soaking and drying the cassava root in the sun. But sometimes the soaking and drying isn't done long enough, especially during times of famine. A disease called konzo, a sudden paralysis of the legs, is thought to be caused by a diet of too much bitter cassava and not enough protein, which helps the body fend off the cyanide-producing chemicals.
Manary recalls a time in Tanzania when cassava-flour cakes were hastily baked for a wedding. More than 100 people ended up paralyzed below the waist, he says.
Bed No. 1
Even during a good harvest year, things are bad in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital malnutrition ward. The two dozen beds are full of mother-child pairs. Not as full as in February, the peak of the "hungry" season, when harvests were long since over and new crops just planted. Then, there were as many as 90 children in the ward. Some found floor space, some slept four to a bed - head to toe, toe to head.
In June, the children who have stocking caps and jackets wear them; their bodies can't produce enough heat to handle the "chill" of this 75-degree day. Every few minutes, a mother walks to a bucket of drinking water and dips in a plastic mug. A few construction paper animals, pasted to the concrete walls, lend little cheer to this place. The mothers sing songs and murmur reassurances to their children, who have hopeful names like Rose, Gift and Blessing.
The malnutrition on display here comes in two terrible types. One is marasmus, a wasting where the body eats itself, reducing the skin to a paper so thin that opportunistic bacteria turn scratches into infected facial potholes. These children are sluggish, good at conserving energy and ravenous when food is available.
The other disease is kwashiorkor, where children's hands, feet and faces become puffy with fluid that leaks from dying cells. These children don't have an appetite, says Manary, and they mostly just moan.
Gladys Mponda has kwashiorkor. Her hair is patchy. Her body is lost in her blue and yellow dress. Her neck is too weak to hold her head up straight. Yet her face is pudgy, her bare feet fat. Her mother crosses her arms and waits glumly as the visiting doctor pinches and prods.
At 25 pounds, Gladys has the weight of a healthy 20-month-old. But she is 5. Old enough, perhaps, to understand the doctor's decision to put a feeding tube up one nostril and down her throat to bypass the irritation of thrush infections. Old enough, perhaps, to understand his decision to move her to bed No. 1.
Her mother reluctantly gathers her up in her arms and carries this wisp to the nurse's station.
The next day, Gladys dies.
see also - Until cassava comes, peanut butter holds off hunger
and other material - Special Report: Feeding Africa