You are here: Part One

Seeds of Doubt

Mali's people reap no reward from cloned wild-rice gene

By Tom Knudson -- Bee Staff Writer
Published Sunday, June 6, 2004 -- First of five parts

The sun rises over the village of Fisso in Mali, ... The sun rises over the village of Fisso in Mali, where the thatched roofs and fences are made by the seminomadic Bela people from the wild rice plant that grows during the rainy season.Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

KEREDJI MOLLA, MALI -- Overhead, the sun hangs like a heat lamp, searing an African landscape the color of toast. Patches of sandy soil that yielded green shoots of millet and wild rice last fall now swirl with dust.

Near a well ringed by thirsty livestock, a crowd of men and boys has gathered. There is time to talk. It's been a tough year.

“Many here have died from hunger, infections and malaria,” says Mihdi Ag Mohamed, a herder who lives in this ramshackle settlement of mud and grass huts west of the fabled city of Timbuktu. “Poverty is extreme.”

In June 1996, the University of California, Davis, began an unprecedented effort to help the West African nation of Mali, using the promising and controversial new tool of agricultural biotechnology.

With money earned cloning and patenting a gene from a hardy species of wild rice native to Mali, UC Davis would give something back - first, scholarships for Mali students and later, disease-resistant rice to help feed the impoverished country. There was talk of future health clinics and conservation programs, even using the gene to battle hunger and poverty in other corners of the world.

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Eight years later, no help whatsoever has arrived. The Genetic Resources Recognition Fund that UC Davis officials hoped would turn university patents and corporate profit into a model of social responsibility has a balance of zero.

In the hopes that inspired the effort - and the missteps that stifled it - lies a drama larger than the sum of its parts, one that shows both the promise and pitfalls of the largest technological leap in American agriculture since the tractor: biotechnology.

Born a generation ago, partly in California laboratories and farm fields, biotechnology promised a banquet of benefits: It would bring more choice to consumers, pose no environmental threat to organic and conventional farmers, create little or no regulatory burden for government and, most tantalizingly, help feed the world's hungry.

So far - like UC Davis' effort to aid Mali - biotechnology has not delivered.

Consumer wariness and environmental opposition have slowed its progress, of course. Government regulations are convoluted.

But other problems are home-grown. In moving from public to private ownership of genes and gene technology, universities got snarled in a patent system so complex and conflict-prone it has slowed the flow of innovations from their labs. In licensing their discoveries to industry, universities have turned over the fruits of taxpayer-funded research to private biotechnology companies, where earning a profit can eclipse the public good.

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They keep both feet planted

They both love the outdoors and have a special interest in plants. So when a mutual friend introduced Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, the couple hit it off instantly.

View the photo gallery Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak offer thanks before a meal of brown rice, organic vegetables, tofu and salad with daughter Audrey and a reluctant Cliff, left. Renée C. Byer

It mattered not at all, they say, that Adamchak is an organic farmer and Ronald is a genetic engineer. “It never came up for a split second,” Ronald said. In 1996, they got married.

In modern agricultural politics, organic farming and genetic engineering occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. In the Ronald-Adamchak household, the world is not so black and white.

Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. Adamchak manages the student-run organic farm on campus. Together, they're rearing two young children in a pastoral neighborhood west of Davis. Their house is sided with wooden shingles, a spacious remodeled kitchen its centerpiece.

Peek in the pantry, and the prevailing food philosophy of this family is obvious. They buy grains from an organic grower up north who harvests her crop using draft horses. Dinner on a typical weekend is tofu and brown rice purchased from the local co-op. Cabbage and garlic stir-fried, with the tofu, come from the campus organic garden.

“If you evaluate people based on what they eat, we're a very organic family,” said Adamchak, who doesn't mind spending $8 on a pound of organic ginger so that Cliff, 4 1/2, and Audrey, 3, can make Christmas cookies with their mother.

Ronald doesn't mind spending more on organics either, but says the ginger price is exorbitant. She's also been known to argue for using engineered crops in organic foods, saying that might achieve some goals of organic farming, such as reducing pesticides.

Adamchak softly deflects the notion of engineered organics by stating not his own opinion, but the position of his peers: “The organic community has been pretty strongly opposed to having biotech products in any form as part of organic agriculture.”

When they disagree professionally, they do so gently. And on one critical point, husband and wife are in complete accord: They say conventional agriculture, with its heavy reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, is toxic.

- Edie Lau

 


“There is enormous pressure for fast results, for blockbusters,” said Pamela Ronald, the UC Davis scientist who cloned the gene from Mali and encouraged the university to create the benefit-sharing fund. "If something doesn't yield in six months, it's out."

Survival on a stalk

North of the swift-moving Niger River in Mali, the source of Ronald's cloned African gene is both prized and despised.

To commercial farmers in Mali, the jade-green species of wild rice, Oryza longistaminata, is a weed - a tenacious tangle of roots and leaves so destructive that if they find it in cultivated rice fields, they douse it with chemicals and yank it up by its roots.

To the seminomadic Bela people, who inhabit villages across the region, the grasslike wild rice that grows along irrigation ditches and in wet spots during the rainy season is a gift. It is survival on a stalk - shelter for homes, fodder for livestock and food when times are lean.

Slaves just two generations ago, the Bela are among the poorest of Mali's poor. They earn less than a dollar a day. Most are illiterate. Many are sick. The rhythm of life in a Bela village has two primary beats: food and work. You can hear it in the thwomp, thwomp of women - babies strapped to their backs, babies at their feet - pounding millet into mash. You can see it in the iron-hard muscles of men making bricks out of mud. You can smell it in the acrid smoke of trees burned into charcoal for cooking.

Survival is what counts, not scientific discovery.

When informed that university officials half a world away in California owned a part of their culture, a gene from their rice - and were licensing it to biotechnology corporations - the Bela were puzzled, even angry.

As she sat inside a grass hut weaving reeds into brooms and fans in the Bela backwater of Musawere, Fadimata Walet Alkhassane - a 40-year-old mother of two - expressed the view of many:

“For the man who took something from our rice, I only want to ask him for help so we can leave these bad conditions where we live without adequate water, garments and shoes.”

Basket of biotechnology

Helping the world's poor and hungry is a prominent part of American culture and agriculture. It is a creed that shapes U.S. foreign policy, motivates humanitarian organizations and inspires agricultural scientists and students across the country.

And it has no greater success than the “Green Revolution” - an outpouring of farming methods, crop varieties and publicly funded research that, transplanted to India and Asia in the 1960s, saved millions from starvation.

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, was a young U.S. State Department officer in South Vietnam in 1968 when .higher-yielding Green Revolution rice began to arrive.

“It brought about a stunning transformation,” Quinn said. “People went from being marginal subsistence farmers, growing one crop a year, to growing two or even three.”

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A struggle to survive: Mali village charcoal industry may burn itself out

It begins with the silver glint of an ax striking wood and ends - days later - with ash-gray tendrils of smoke spiraling skyward from a smoldering black pit.

View the photo gallery As Moghaye Oualet Alhousseini, 22, works to dig up coals from burning wood in Fisso village, her 1-year-old son Yasse Ag Ahmeolou shields his eyes from the smoke. The charcoal will be sold at market. Renée C. Byer

For residents of Fisso, a tiny Bela village north of the Niger River in Mali, burning trees to make charcoal is a major source of revenue and of barter, to trade for food. In the coal fields, women, often with children strapped to their backs, are the primary laborers. They sift coals with their bare hands, wearing only sandals on their feet.

Charcoal is valuable because it is Mali's propane, used for cooking.

There is a problem with this cottage industry, though: Mali is not lushly forested. Trees in this part of the country are scarce and getting scarcer.

Mali straddles Africa's parched Sahel region - a 3,000-mile-long, 300-milewide band of savannah, scrub brush and gaunt flat-topped acacia trees that reaches across Africa and separates the Sahara Desert from the tropics. Some scientists fear the Sahara is expanding, marching dune by dune to the south, colonizing the Sahel. Human activities, from overgrazing livestock to burning trees for charcoal, are helping it grow.

Today, making charcoal helps the Bela survive. Tomorrow, it may force them from an austere desert landscape no longer able to support village life.

Tom Knudson

 


“You could see people's lives change,” he said. “There were more kids going to school. People were better clothed. ... Child mortality rates dropped.”

Worldwide, rice production jumped from 257 million tons in 1966 to 587 million tons in 1999, feeding about 700 million more people annually. That's the kind of success the biotechnology industry wants to clone. In advertisements and conferences, companies promise a future of virus-resistant sweet potatoes, vitamin A-enriched rice and other miracle crops for the world's poor.

“Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will,” said one ad by the Monsanto Co., an international biotechnology giant, in a London newspaper in 1998.

Last year, Monsanto Vice President Robert Horsch repeated the theme in testimony on Capitol Hill: “Biotechnology will be a crucial part of expanding agricultural productivity in the 21st century. This technology can be particularly beneficial for Africa.”

Today, Monsanto points out that it and other firms are working on a basket of biotechnology products for Africa, including pest-resistant bananas, high-yielding black-eyed peas and millet immune to parasitic infection. But so far, South Africa is the only African nation with commercially grown biotechnology crops - cotton, maize and soybeans.

Some say the industry is peddling dreams. “It's so naive,” said Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. “It is at least partly a public relations exercise.”

Goodman is no biotechnology basher. He is a former director of research at Calgene, the California firm that brought the first genetically modified crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, to store shelves in 1994. And he advises crop scientists in Africa on both conventional and biotech crops.

Helping Africa's hungry, he said, “is such a complicated situation. There are multiple crops, markets and food preferences among cultures, a whole range of policy and infrastructure issues. I don't think private companies have the staying power to deal with it.”


 

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