Pioneer’s Business Model for Genetically Modified Foods for Africa

Reuters had this story today, “Scientists seek biotech answer to hunger”, about researchers in the U.S. working to genetically tweak sorghum (a cereal crop) to make it richer in essential nutrients.

An estimated 300 million people in arid regions of Africa rely on sorghum as a food source along with other crops. But while conventional sorghum is already known to do well in drought conditions, it lacks certain key nutrients.

By taking genes from other crops as well as manipulating genes within the sorghum plant itself, scientists believe they can remake sorghum into a more easily digestible crop richer in vitamins A and E, iron, zinc and amino acids and protein.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of Dupont, is a key U.S. partner and the sole commercial player in the endeavor. Pioneer has donated $4.8 million in gene technology, and is lending manpower and facilities for visiting African scientists at its Johnston headquarters.

The claim is often made that biotechnology will bring huge benefits to the world’s developing nations. In particular, it’s often — too often — claimed that genetically modified (GM) foods will do wonderful things for the starving millions in Africa. It seems to me that the question is not whether biotechnology could help the developing world, but rather whether it will. For biotech actually to help developing nations, it seems that one of two things has to happen. Either governments and NGO’s need to spend a lot of money to donate biotech products or know-how, or companies need to find business models that let them a) do good, while b) making a profit. The company involved in this story (Pioneer Hi-Bred) is frank about its business model:

Pioneer will have no rights to revenues from the biotech sorghum once it is developed and commercialized, said Anderson. But the company, already locked into tight competition in the commercial seeds market, hopes that success with biotech sorghum might help open doors for other biotech crops in countries currently skeptical of genetically altered crops.

The point here is that African countries have been very, very wary of GM foods — in some cases, African governments have rejected donations of GM food that would have saved lives. So, Pioneer is hoping GM sorghum will be the thin edge of the wedge. Some people will find this alarming. I don’t (since I don’t think there’s any good reason to worry about GM foods in general.) But you’ve got to admit, the company’s candour about its business model is pretty disarming.

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