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Jonathan Gressel Considers Food for Africa: The life and work of a scientist in GM Crops by Jennifer Thomson

Food for AfricaJonathan Gressel of the Weizmann Istitute of Science in Israel reflects on Jennifer Thompson’s book Food for Africa: The life and work of a scientist in GM Crops:

This book is a fascinating and easy read, an autobiographical outline of a life dedicated to the cause of easing the life of the rural poor using science, while being an effective educator in stimulating many others to do the same. I discovered that Prof. Thomson had a far more diverse agenda than what I had known from meeting her a few times (and taking an immediate liking to her). All I knew was her excellent molecular virology as well as her studies on the extremely drought tolerant resurrection plant. Her personal history is deeply intertwined with both that of South Africa and crop genetic engineering, along with the tribulations in getting the products farmers need to market.

The book begins with her personal history, from her being a 13 year old Sunday school teacher, through her university studies in South Africa and Cambridge UK, to a Harvard post-doctoral fellowship. It is also the history of the first genetic engineering, the initial fears (some still stoked, despite all evidence to the contrary), through to outlining how it could be used to solve problems, first in her post-doctoral research, and then throughout her long and fruitful career. The early history of genetic engineering in Africa is basically the history of Prof Thomson: starting the first lab, starting the first biosafety committee, travelling abroad to work in all the key labs, and trying unsuccessfully to found the first African biotech company in 1987, and living through the world wide contagious disease of cutting back on long term basic research.

Change came when applications were submitted to cultivate transgenic crops, not to help the bulk of South African farmers, but for multi-national seed companies to propagate during the Northern hemisphere winters. By then Dr Thomson was influential in the local biosafety committee as well as a leading scientist. Unlike most such committees that act only on request, they were proactive in initiating investigations as well as suggesting legislation leading to the South African GMO act. She describes how the act was enacted, then functionally inactivated by the inaction or illogical decision making by bureaucrats and politicians, leading to an inability to cultivate locally developed potatoes and sorghum in field or even greenhouse. Since then, South Africa has become a major grower of transgenic cotton and maize (and some soy), with uptake quickest by resource poor farmers (against the conventional wisdom of anti’s), whose maize yields doubled or tripled while eliminating insecticide spraying and hand weeding.

Dr Thomson discusses her outreach activities, the ex-Sunday school teacher trying to educate politicians and consumers, invited to speak at the UN, the Vatican and at Davos, as well as participating in every conceivable international, regional, regional and national forum dedicated to increasing food security of the rural poor by using transgenic technologies that could solve problems intractable to breeding. This included a stint of heading the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Nairobi, where she became an expert on intellectual property and technology transfer issues. She was also deeply involved in organizations to get and help more women into science and achieve equality. She modestly describes her own advancement to senior positions as luck, but clearly as a woman she had to be far better than the men competing for the same positions.

As an aside, she tells how as a microbiologist, she dealt with problems of microbial contamination of water in Botswana. She downplays her role as an educator, but anyone who knows biotech in Africa can rapidly tell who were her students. After the end of apartheid (a regime she fought fiercely until it fell), she diligently interviewed prospective students from throughout sub-Sahara Africa, brought the crème de la crème as graduate students to her lab, excited and trained them in molecular biology. They are now the mainstay of African biotechnology.

Much space is devoted to the political problems of getting research performed, and even more on issues of transgenic regulations, which were strongly based on the European system of obstructionism for political ends, and pulls no punches in laying blame. She also presents the biodiverse history of the regulatory systems of each sub-Saharan country.

It is only in Chapters 7 and 8 (of 9) that she actually starts describing her decades of work with her students and colleagues on developing transgenic resistance to maize streak virus, a major problem in Africa, as well as her very innovative work on drought tolerance. These are the chapters that establish her credentials as a top scientist and educator, and perhaps should have appeared earlier in the book. They demonstrate that the accolades achieved were justified. The transgenic streak resistant maize is finally being field-tested. She has been isolating genes from an African species of resurrection plant that confer a modicum of drought tolerance (as well as heat tolerance) that are quite different from those being tested by the multi-nationals for the same trait. Time will tell if either can stand alone in severe field testing, and this reviewer would hazard a guess that the genes should be “stacked” together for more resilient drought tolerance. Both chapters on her work accentuate the need for locally finding the necessary genes for the regions they are needed, instead of relying on “hand me down genes” from the developed world. She discussed this briefly (and perhaps obliquely) in noting that the Bt gene that is highly effective on the European corn-borer hardly affects its African cousin. These and other chapters are poorly referenced to original scientific literature, perhaps because scientists are not her major focus audience.

The final chapter is focused on explaining to African regulators that the transgenic products released to the market are safe to humans, livestock and the environment, and have been endorsed by every major scientific and medical authority. She then again (somewhat duplicating Chapter 4, but in a different context) goes through the product pipeline of potential products and the impact they could have on African food security. Unfortunately the accompanying photos are of poor quality. She finishes with a resounding “Yes, GM crops can help feed hungry people in Africa” and calls on African politicians to start listening to the rural poor and stop listening to the disinformation being promulgated by Greenpeace (and she provides photographic evidence of such disinformation).

This is an important book on dealing with the needs of food security in Africa, written by an African for Africans and anyone interested. We should all be interested in reading this perspective and is recommended to all interested in developing world food security. Hopefully as a result of this book, future generations will not have to go through all the trials and tribulations she had.

Review published originally in Food Security 6 (2014) 151-152.

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