"Those who protest biotechnology do so with a full belly"

-Dr. Florence Wambugu

In Kenya, the sweet potato is a staple crop which is vital to the economy. Since farmers do not have the money to buy costly insecticides and herbicides each year, they rely on subsistence farming. While this method has almost no impact on the environment, the poor soil and weather allows most Kenyan farmers to barely grow enough food for their families, let alone to sell for a profit. What little crop is grown is ravaged by weevils and the feathering mottle virus. The feathering mottle virus takes away the color of sweet potatoes and causes them to grow to only a fraction of their normal size.


            Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist, was recruited by Monsanto to develop a GM sweet potato which could resist the feathering mottle virus and grow to larger dimensions. Working closely with scientists at Monsanto, she spliced the gene for feathering mottle-resistance into sweet potatoes. In field trials, the transgenic sweet potato grew to several times the size of the unmodified sweet potato. This GM crop could quadruple the productivity of Kenyan farmers. Best of all, the technology is built into the seed, and can be recycled year after year, meaning that farmers do not need continually buy pesticides and herbicides. This breakthrough could allow for farmers to feed the growing Kenyan population and break the cycle of poverty. It would also affect subsequent generations, as children of farmers could go to school instead of laboring in the fields day after day.



            Initially, environmental groups spoke out against the practice, claiming that there was enough food for the entire world, and that we should focus on distributing it equally. Wambugu countered by saying that even if industrialized nations gave away food to developing counties, the costs of transportation would force Kenyans to pay high prices at the markets. She added that no one wanted to be dependent on others, and that farmers took pride in being able to feed their families.


            However, reports of the results of the transgenic sweet potato have been mixed. While Wambugu and many Kenyan sources say that the GM sweet potato has been a huge step in feeding the country, anti-GM activists have declared the project a ‘broken promise.’ In February of 2004, the science magazine New Scientist reported the project a failure.


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