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Could African Crops Be Improved With Private Biotech Data?

"I'm shocked by the optimism here," Howard Yana-Shapiro, the chief agricultural officer for Mars, Inc., said Tuesday to the audience of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.

Seated there before him were some of the leaders — from the wealthiest international organizations and multinational companies — of the fight to end hunger. And Shapiro told them they weren't even close.

"To pat ourselves on the back and say we've reached 4 million African children — well, we need to reach 100 times that," he said.

About four years ago, Shapiro, a plant scientist who's also a senior fellow at the University of California, Davis, and the World Agroforestry Centre, learned about stunting, a result of malnutrition and under-nutrition that affects one in four children worldwide.

Shapiro decided to make it his mission to use plant science to end stunting because, he says, the international community currently relies too much on food donations, or crops like corn with few nutrients. "We need nutrition security, not food security," he says. "A lot of the calories out there right now simply aren't that useful."

In 2011, Shapiro, and Mars — yes, the candy company — launched the African Orphan Crop Consortium, a project to improve the nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of little known African food crops by mapping and analyzing their genomes. The 100 crops that are the focus of the AOCC include African eggplant, cocoyam and Ethiopian mustard. Shapiro says they have been neglected by researchers because they are not economically important on the global market.

Now, the Beijing Genomic Institute is helping the consortium to sequence these crops' genomes. The hope is that as the genome sequences start to become public next year, African scientists can breed more nutritious and productive varieties of the crops.

On Tuesday in Washington, Shapiro appealed to the world's biggest life sciences companies to help him — by sharing what they already know about the 100 crops.

"I would appeal to the presidents of Dupont Pioneer and BASF and Monsanto to give us all the information they have on nutritional content and where the markers are on the plants for it," Shapiro said. "We're looking at the genomics to have a roadmap of what to do. We're looking for the turn signs, and I think those companies may have some of those signs."

But can the kings of agricultural intellectual-property technology get on board with open source agricultural information for Africa? Monsanto, for one, is regularly fighting to protect its patents — most recently in the Supreme Court.

Well, at least one company says it's planning to sit down and talk with Shapiro about his request.

Jane Slusark, a spokeswoman for Dupont Pioneer, says the company wants "to figure out where we may have that knowledge and opportunities to collaborate."

Not long ago, DuPont donated its patented technology to improve the nutrition, production and availability of sorghum, a staple crop in Africa, to the Africa Biofortified Sorghum initiative.

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