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Pioneer, Gates to Give African Farmers Biotech Seed

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- Philip Brasher , Feb. 17, 2010
Washington, D.C. — 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. The project represents the latest effort by U.S. seed giants to promote their products as being potentially beneficial to small-scale farmers in Africa, a continent with chronic food shortages but where countries have been reluctant to permit genetically modified crops.

“If you look at the issues the world faces, we’ve got a tremendous need for increasing productivity,” Schickler said in an interview. Experts say global food production needs to double by 2050 to meet the needs of growing populations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

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.

Both projects involve making improvements in conventional African varieties using molecular breeding techniques as well as introducing the companies’ patented genes to either improve the crop’s resistance to drought, in Monsanto’s case, or its use of nitrogen fertilizer, in Pioneer’s.

Corn is a staple food throughout eastern and southern Africa, but yields are typically only a fraction of what they are in the United States because of the poor soils, insufficient rainfall and farmers’ lack of access to fertilizer, insecticides and high-quality seeds, experts say.

Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, highlighted the Monsanto project, without mentioning the company by name, in a speech at the annual World Food Prize symposium last fall in Des Moines.

Monsanto, which has been testing its drought-tolerant corn in South Africa and hopes to begin field trials in Kenya and Uganda this year. 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.

Pioneer’s goal with the African project is to first develop the improved conventional African varieties through the molecular breeding techniques and then introduce the transgenic material toward the end of this decade, Schickler said. The first conventionally bred varieties could be available within four years, according to Pioneer.

The use of molecular markers allows scientist to more precisely identify important genes within the plants.  Improving the nitrogen efficiency of crops would allow crops to grow better in poor soils or mean that farmers could use less fertilizer, which can wash off fields and pollute streams and rivers. Nitrogen runoff from fields in corn fields in Iowa has been linked to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

In Africa, many poor farmers use little or no fertilizer already because of its cost.  “African maize farmers must deal with drought, weeds and pests, but their problems start with degraded, nutrient-starved soils and their inability to purchase enough nitrogen fertilizer,” said Wilfred Mwangi, associated director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s Kenya-based corn breeding program

Both Pioneer and Monsanto are working with scientists at the research center that has long been associated with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, who is considered the father of the Green Revolution, which resulted in increased production of wheat and rice in Asia but largely missed Africa.

A U.S. critic of agricultural biotechnology, Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the companies may be trying to improve the global image of genetically modified foods, which have met resistance in Europe, Africa and other regions.  The companies appear to be trying to “enhance some sense that the technology is needed because it produces better” than conventional crop breeding, she said.

South Africa is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that currently allows commercial production of a biotech food crop.  Schickler said it had not been decided yet whether African farmers will get seeds that would combine the traits for drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency.