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Future belongs to GM crops
SEEDS OF HOPE: Spirnak speaks on agricultural biotechnology in Calcutta.

As mindless urbanisation and industrialisation swallow fertile wetlands and overuse of pesticides puts the environment in jeopardy, researchers are designing crops that could tolerate dry and saline environments and keep pests at bay.

US researchers in collaboration with public and private institutions from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines have launched a project that aims to produce genetically modified (GM) crops which are popular in developing countries,” said Madelyn E. Spirnak, senior adviser for Agricultural Biotechnology of the US State Department. She spoke on “Agricultural Biotechnology and Its Prospects in Developing Countries” at the seminar hall of Calcutta’s US Consulate on January 30. “Known as Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), this project will help boost food security, economic growth, nutrition and environmental quality in East and West Africa, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.”

Scientists are genetically altering crops like rice, potato, eggplant and papaya that are widely grown and consumed in developing countries. “A research team led by Dr Ray Wu of Cornell University, New York, has inserted a bacterial gene in rice to make it overproduce a naturally occurring sugar,” said Spirnak. “This new gene makes the rice to tolerate drought and salinity stress.”

According to her, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi plans to borrow this technical knowhow and import snippets of genes from Wu’s lab to transform locally identified varieties of rice. This new GM rice is expected to hit the markets by 2011, said Spirnak.

Another important food crop for developing countries is eggplant, known as brinjal in India and Africa. But, it falls prey to pests like fruit and shoot borers, which are resistant to chemicals. “Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MAHYCO) in Jalna in collaboration with Monsanta, a US-based biotech giant, has invented a brinjal that combats pests,” she said. “Adding bacterial gene, researchers have produced 12 varieties and hybrids, with different types of fruits for different regional preferences.” This transgenic brinjal is undergoing field trials for efficacy and biosafety in India. Indications are that the initial products can be marketed by this December.

Planting GM crops has a host of benefits. “GM crops reduce tillage drastically dropping emission of greenhouse gas, a key miscreant in global warming,” Spirnak said. “Reduced tillage also saves diesel fuel and curtails the use of pesticides to a great extent.” This increases farmers’ net profits.

The future of GM crops looks promising. “Researchers plan to develop GM corns that will neutralise a naturally occurring toxin that sometimes develops in dry environment. They even envision such corn that increases iron absorption, reducing the need of iron supplements,” said Spirnak. “Soybeans with higher levels of isoflavones, which in combination with soy protein have been shown to reduce some cancer risks, decrease heart disease, as well as bone density and diminish hot flashes.” Economists predict that full adoption of biotech crops would globally result in income gains of $210 billion per year within the next decade, with the largest gains occurring in developing countries, she concluded.

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