High-Nutrient Staples

If you’re interested in the politics of malnutrition, genetic research, or gene patenting, pick up a copy of the November issue of Gourmet, which has a very interesting profile of Howarth Bouis and his struggle to get high-nutrient varieties of staple crops to undernourished children in the developing world. It’s an enormous problem: Micronutrient deficiencies stunt the growth of a third of all African children under five, according to Gourmet. And those deficiencies go on to cause a host of lifelong mental and physical difficulties. It’s also an underrecognized issue. Bouis, an agricultural economist by training, asked himself, as Gourmet puts it, “which is the bigger scandal: The millions of children that malnutrition kills every year, or the millions it leaves behind?”

Bouis founded the organization HarvestPlus to try to get more key nutrients into staple foods. He’s having an impact, and he’s got serious cash behind him: The Gates Foundation recently gave HarvestPlus $25 million.

Although Bouis seems, unfairly or not, oblivious to it, there are legitimate ecocolonial concerns about a project like this. The story waits until halfway through to let Bouis’s critics dig in, but the last few paragraphs aren’t pretty. Indian activist Vandana Shiva points out that HarvestPlus seeds will benefit the multinational corporations making fertilizers and pesticides more than the farmers, and that these new varieties, often based on indigenous seeds, might be ultimately controlled by “a few companies who then patent them and sell them at huge profits.” HarvestPlus explicitly doesn’t rule out collaborating “with the ADMs and Cargills of the world,” according to a spokeswoman. Bouis ends up looking well-intentioned but naive, although he’d no doubt say that the truly naive are those overlooking the quiet devastation of nutrient deficiency. And he might have a point.

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