A highly successful health food company in the United States, Silver Plate Inc, is seeking to cash in on the health benefits of sorghum. More particularly, it has begun to commercialize foods rich in sorghum anthocyanins, natural “antioxidant” chemicals found in some strongly coloured plant foods that are believed to have heart and other health benefits.
Unlike many major cereal crops, high antioxidant genetic traits are readily available to sorghum breeders. This is because of the work of generations of African farmers, who selected and bred coloured sorghums for various purposes, including dyes for fabric, making food crops resistant to depredation by birds and disease resistance.
The owners of Silver Palate have a successful track record in the health foods sector. In 2007, they sold one of their companies, which makes fat-free imitation butter, for US $490 million.1 Now, these same entrepreneurs are interested in sorghum. They have entered into agreements with major US supermarket chains to sell sorghum products, including breakfast cereals, baking mixes and crackers.
Silver Palate is negotiating to gain rights to sorghum varieties held by Texas Agricultural & Mechanical University (Texas A&M), from its enormous collection belonging to African farmers. Although it is a public university, Texas A&M is highly proprietary in its approach to seeds. It considers the vast majority of the thousands of farmers’ varieties of sorghum that it possesses, and the breeding lines into which it puts African genes, to be proprietary.
Texas A&M is working to turn its sorghum collection into a university and personal profit centre. It is demanding fees and royalties from Silver Palate in return for access to African-derived sorghum seeds. Two thirds of the income will be allocated toward the cost of maintaining intellectual property claims and paid as personal profit to a Texas A&M plant breeder. The University is making no plans, and feels it has no moral or legal obligation, to share any benefits from the deal with African farmers.
By Edward Hammond