Hamara Beej

Friday, November 6, 2009

Coming soon...designer food at a dining table near you


Your favourite food, vegetable or fruit, may soon come with genes inserted from bacteria, parasites or even scorpion. And the first such genetically modified (GM) food to reach your dining table would be brinjal or eggplant. The recent Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)'s approval of Bt brinjal marks a new trend in India.
This is the first genetically-modified (GM) food item that will be cultivated and consumed on a large scale in the country, pending final approval from the government. This could open up the floodgates for GM foods of all variety to enter the country, offer some new hopes and also raise a lot of concerns.
It has already sparked off a debate on biosafety, environment and consumer choice. Genetically-modified organisms have their DNA altered in a way that does not occur naturally.
The technology is sometimes referred to as "recombinant DNA technology" or "genetic engineering". It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism to another, even between non-related species. For instance, scientists have inserted scorpion and moth genes into canola oilseed plants to make them poisonous to insects feeding on them.
The primary objective of developing GM crops is to improve crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides. "These traits were earlier carried out through conventional plant breeding. But breeding methods are time-consuming and often not very accurate," explains Prof M.S. Swaminathan, widely regarded as the father of Green Revolution. "However, with recombinant DNA technology, plants with the desired traits can be produced rapidly and with greater accuracy." Swaminathan is upbeat about isolating genes that make crops withstand drought and introducing them on a large scale.
Insect resistance in crops is achieved by incorporating into the food plant the gene for toxin production from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin is currently used as a conventional insecticide in agriculture. GM crops that permanently produce this toxin are supposed to require lower quantities of insecticides.
Bt is found in nature and produces some crystal proteins which kill insect larvae like the bollworm that attacks cotton, corn borer and shoot borers. The Bt genes responsible for the toxic protein can be transferred into cotton, soya, corn or brinjal - making them produce their own natural pesticides.
Swaminathan explains the science: "Bt genes are lethal only in the acidic environment of an insect gut. They do not get activated in the alkaline environment in humans and other animals that feed on these plants." Seed companies are hyping up genetic modification as the future of food - magic crops that yield better and taste better, fighting pests, droughts, floods and what not. In India, field trials are on for genetically- modified rice, chickpea, groundnut, maize, mustard, okra, pigeon pea, potato, tomato, watermelon, papaya and sorghum. A total of 56 GM plants, including 41 food crops, are in the pipeline for clearance.
There is high-voltage marketing as well. For instance, in the case of cotton, the proponents of the GM route take credit for all the advancements ever since the technology was introduced here. M.K. Sharma, general manager, Mahyco, the company that sells Bt brinjal seeds under licence from the multinational Monsanto, claims the recent increase in cotton production in India is largely due to the introduction of Bt.
During the 2002-2008 period, there has been 150-fold increase in Bt cotton and five million farmers were growing it in the country.
It brought about 31 per cent increase in yield, 40 per cent reduction in pesticide use and Rs 10,000 more earning per hectare, officials say.
Similar projections are being made for Bt brinjal too. Brinjal suffers 50-70 per cent damage due to the fruit and shoot borer. The loss can be pegged at Rs 1,000 crore per annum. Farmers spray pesticides as much as 25 times a year or more. As a solution, the GM variety could more than double the marketable production of brinjal, compared with conventional varieties, proponents of Bt brinjal claim.
Amidst the high-voltage publicity, there are environmental and economic concerns about the GM technology.
Greenpeace has pointed out that in Bt cotton fields there have been instances of farmers developing allergy, cattle deaths and communities losing profits.
The seeds could cost many times the local variety, the crops still suffer from other pests and diseases and in some agro-climatic regions they could just fail, as the group points out. "There are many unanswered questions about biosafety," said Rajesh Krishnan of Greenpeace.
Due to consumer protests and scientific debates on health issues, cultivation and sale of GM food is restricted in several European countries. Other countries mandate clear marking on GM products.
There are health concerns being expressed. The World Health Organization has noted that while theoretical discussions have covered a lot of ground, three key concerns were debated - the GM crops' tendencies to provoke allergic reactions, transfer gene to the intestinal bacteria, and the movement of transfer of genes to conventional crops or related species in the wild. Even scientists, who support genetic engineering in general, are concerned about a world in which a lot of toxin-carrying genes move around. It could pose not only health risk, but also increase resistance among pests.
When it was introduced in India, Bt cotton was promoted as a wonder product that would save farmers caught in pesticide resistance, low yields and spiralling debts. But in several places that was not the case. A three-year assessment of Bt cotton used by scientists Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakhari found that farmers in their study areas were not achieving big yields, as the company had claimed. They found that the pesticide use was not falling either, as secondary pests had taken over the attack.
In turn, the income of non-Bt farmers was often higher than that of Bt farmers. Mahyco, however, has dismissed it as an isolated study.
Amidst the controversy, firm support comes from Prof G. Padmanabhan, former director of the Indian Institute of Science.
He feels the regulatory and biosafety procedures in India are elaborate and foolproof. "Brinjal needs very extensive pest management and Bt brinjal can bring about a change." Padmanabhan said, "I don't say GM technology is without risks. But Bt is one of the safest genes." Now Bt rice is on the horizon too.
But even he advised moderation. "How many Bt products can we have?" he asked. "Scientists should worry about that."

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