Opinion: Africa Already Has Superfoods That Monsanto Tries To Engineer With GMOs

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Written by Staff

From MotherJones. Story by Tom Philpott.

Indigenous vegetables are gaining traction throughout East and West Africa.

Traditional markets, supermarkets, and restaurant menus in Nairobi feature them heavily. Kenyan farmers increased the area planted with leafy greens by 25 percent between 2011 and 2013. They’re also gaining ground in Western Africa.

Of course, spiderplant and cowpea leaves are a long way from solving Africa’s nutritional problems. As of 2013, indigenous vegetables accounted for just 6 percent of Kenya’s total vegetable market, reports SciDevNet.

Despite growing demand, SciDevNet found, production is constrained by the same factors that haunt African food security broadly: poor infrastructure (roads, rail, etc.) for bringing fresh food from farm to market, along with a dearth of investment in research and development.

Imagine if Monsanto announced the debut of a genetically engineered superfood—a vegetable rich in protein and essential vitamins and minerals, perfectly adapted to Africa’s soils and changing climate.

There’d be howls of protest, no doubt, from anti-GMO activists. But also great adulation—possibly a World Food Prize—along with stern lectures about how anti-science romanticism must not impede heroic corporate efforts to “feed the world.”

Thing is, such superfoods exist in Africa. They exist thanks not to the genius and beneficence of a foreign company, but rather through millennia of interactions between Africa’s farmers and its landscape.

The leaves of amaranth, pumpkin, and cowpea (black-eyed pea) plants are packed with vitamins, minerals, and protein.

And while their popularity waned in recent decades as urbanization has swept through the continent, they’re gaining renewed interest from food-security experts and urban dwellers alike, reports a new article by Rachel Cernansky in “Nature.”

Cernansky focuses on the work of Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticulturalist at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, who has since the 1990s been a kind of Johnny Appleseed for reviving appetites for indigenous vegetables in Africa.

In a 2010 paper, Abukutsa-Onyango demonstrated the nutritional punch packed by these foodstuffs. African vegetables like the leaves of amaranth, pumpkin, and cowpea (black-eyed pea) plants outshine rival Western greens that have been introduced into African agriculture over the past century.

Read more at MotherJones.