Another day, another misguided announcement from the Bill Gates Foundation. This time, it’s hyping a new GMO press release project from DuPont’s biotechnology arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred (via the Des Moines Register):
Pioneer Hi-Bred is joining with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help scientists in Africa develop genetically engineered corn varieties that would allow poor farmers increase their yields with less fertilizer.
The aim of the project is to increase corn yields by 50 percent over the average now reached by African varieties, said Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, a Johnston-based unit of DuPont.
… Pioneer’s arch-rival Monsanto Co. is two years into a similar project with the Gates foundation to develop drought-tolerant corn that is to be made available to small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.
Both Pioneer and Monsanto have agreed to make the seeds available royalty-free to small-scale farmers.
Wow, that sounds great! Those magic seeds should be getting into the hands of farmers any day now. Or not:
Monsanto hopes to have its drought-tolerant seeds to small-scale farmers in Africa by 2016, four years after the projected release of a commercial variety in the United States.
As for Pioneer, they will first use advanced conventional breeding techniques to improve yields, and then add their genetically engineered genes later. The conventional version should be ready by 2014. The transgenic version? Eventually.
From his years as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates knows well the name for this kind of product: vaporware. It’s hard not to think that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk are turning into the Bernie Madoff of agriculture. Convince gullible foundations along with the federal government to send billions in research dollars their way based on a promise of magically awesome results. Sometime down the road, of course.
Meanwhile, if African farmers want improved seeds, they should look in their own backyard. Because they already exist (from Science Daily):
Maize production in West and Central Africa is set to get a much-needed boost with the release of improved varieties by the Nigeria National Variety Release Committee. The improved varieties address many of the major constraints to maize production such as drought, low soil fertility, pests, diseases, and parasitic weeds.
Researchers developed the varieties through conventional plant breeding by tapping naturally-available traits.
This is not a coincidence. Even Pioneer and Monsanto admit that much of the yield improvement of their own seeds will come through traditional techniques. But sex sells and right now, sex in ag-speak is spelled G-M-O.
If only Bill Gates, not to mention USDA Chief Tom Vilsack or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would spend some of their money getting those Nigerian seeds into farmers’ hands today. Instead, they’d prefer to funnel billions of dollars to biotech giants because, well, 2016 isn’t really so long to wait. Dupont and Monsanto promise that the payoff will be worth the wait. And here in America, corporations never, ever lie.