IS INDIA READY FOR THE GENE REVOLUTION?
From the Green Revolution to an ‘evergreen revolution’
Genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops have always been a hotbed for debate and now the topic is back under the spotlight. This year, Indian scientists claim to have created a new genetically modified, protein enriched ‘protato’, which has a whopping 60 percent more protein than the ordinary spud, according to them. The goal of introducing this super-potato is to alleviate hunger and starvation that is plaguing India and many other countries worldwide. Anti-poverty campaigners have greeted the "protato" with cautious support.
This announcement came almost hand in hand with another bit of news – a report published by the most eminent science bodies in India that proposed a limited release of Bt brinjal in Indian markets for human consumption. The report came in response to the moratorium imposed by the Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, on the release of Bt brinjal.
What does genetic modification mean?
Genetic modification refers to the extraction of a gene selectively out of one species and implanting it in another so as to create a hybrid variety that doesn’t occur naturally otherwise. The science of genetic engineering has been a boon to the field of research and medicine in developing and treating many diseases such as follistim (treating infertility).
What does genetic modification in food mean?
Genetically modified crops are also created in the same manner. Bt Cotton, for instance, is created by combining the gene of natural cotton plant with a gene from the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The idea is to let the hybrid cotton produce its own Bt toxin which can fight bollworm, a major cotton pest. The ‘gene revolution’ as it has been dubbed by proponents of GM crops, was introduced in order to boost yields of cotton and avoid the need for expensive pesticides and varieties of seeds that were plaguing Indian farmers because of their high cost.
So why all the hoopla?
Two decades back, GM technology claimed to have heralded the end of food starvation all over the world such that no person would ever go hungry.
But 20 years hence, GM crops are being labelled by leading social activists and medical experts as the science that can only spell disaster for humans and animals alike. According to experts, GM food can wreak havoc with the intestine, liver, kidneys and other organs of the human body. What’s more, these effects can be passed on from generation to generation.
Food policy analyst Devinder Sharma said, "In India, the only commercially cultivated GM crop Bt Cotton, has so far proved extremely harmful for human beings and animals. Hundreds of farmers working in Bt Cotton fields developed skin allergies that were not known before, while thousands of cattle, sheep and goats that went for grazing there died in no time.
According to the film documentary made by Mahesh Bhatt, “Poison on the Platter”, 12 cows died after being fed GM corn, soy allergies saw a rise in the UK after introduction of GM foods, and the toxins in Bt cotton killed as many as 2000 sheep and goats in Andhra Pradesh after they grazed on the land where the cotton was grown.
Will ‘protato’ pass the test?
The creators of the GM protato claim that it does not contain a pesticide gene. In fact, it contains a gene that boosts nutrition. The potato has a gene from the amaranth plant – a crop grown by native South Americans – they said.
Apart from that, it will not trigger to any allergic reactions. But do these advantages justify the release of protato in Indian markets for consumers?
“Potatoes have less than 1.6g protein,” say Devinder Sharma, renouned food and trade policy analyst. “So even if there is an increase of 60 percent in protato, the protein content becomes close to 2gms. Is that really a significant amount?
Potato, in any case, is naturally rich in carbohydrates, not protein.” Sharma also says that instead of creating new GM crop, the government should focus on responsibility to save the grains rotting in granaries, and make sure it reaches the poor.
Whether protato will ever see the light of the day, no one can say or sure. Meanwhile, the risks of consuming genetically enhanced foods outweigh the advantages. Most European countries such as Switzerland have either entirely banned the imports and production of GM foods or imposed a moratorium on the release till long-term tests establish the safety of the crop for consumption or any other commercial use.