South Africa halts ‘super sorghum’ study

The project aims to boost nutrient levels in sorghum, a major crop in Africa Copyright: FAO photo

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[NAIROBI] South Africa has blocked trials of genetically modified sorghum that leaders of a multi-million-dollar project hope can boost nutrition in Africa.

Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu, who heads the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, has secured US$18.6 million over five years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new sorghum varieties with elevated levels of iron, zinc and vitamins.

She says her organisation wished to run their greenhouse trials in South Africa because of its legal guidelines and policy framework on genetically modified (GM) crops, which are so far absent in Kenya.

But last week (12 July) South Africa rejected the application to set up a laboratory and greenhouse on its soil.

According to Kenya’s Sunday Nation, the South African government expressed concern that the GM sorghum could contaminate wild varieties.

Wambugu is hopeful that South African authorities will approve a second application.

She says the project was asked to increase ‘biosecurity’ measures aimed at containing the GM sorghum. "Once we comply, we will certainly go back and reapply to be allowed to start the project."

On the same day the sorghum project was put on hold, the Kenyan parliament overwhelmingly defeated a motion by Davies Nakitare, the member of parliament for Saboti, that sought a blanket ban on all production, consumption and sale of genetically modified foods.

The government said the country had capacity to deal with GM biosafety issues.