The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The potential of genetically modified food needs to be reassessed

The controversy over genetically modified food continues unabated in the West. Genetic modification is the science by which the DNA of a plant is altered, perhaps to make it more resistant to pests or killer weeds, or to enhance its nutritional value. Many food biotechnologists claim that GM will be a major contribution of science to mankind in the 21st century. On the other hand, large numbers of opponents, mainly in Europe, claim that the benefits of GM are a myth propagated by multinational corporations to increase their profits, that they pose a health hazard, and have therefore called for governments to ban the sale of GM food.

The anti-GM campaign has been quite effective in Europe, with several European Union member countries imposing a virtual ban for five years over GM food imports. Since the GM food industry is particularly strong in the United States of America, the controversy also constitutes another chapter in the US-Europe skirmishes which have become particularly acerbic after the US invasion of Iraq. Indeed, George W. Bush has recently launched a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization against the ban on GM food imports, claiming that these represent illegal trade embargos.

To a large extent, the GM controversy has been ignored in the Indian media, although Indian biotechnologists have been quite active in GM research. Several groups of Indian biotechnologists have been working on various issues connected with crops grown in India. One concrete achievement which has recently figured in the news is that of a team led by the former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Asis Datta — it has successfully added an extra gene to potatoes to enhance the protein content of the tuber by at least 30 per cent. Not surprisingly, the new potato has been called the protato. The protato is now in its third year of field trials. It is quite likely that the GM controversy will soon hit the headlines in India since a spokesperson of the Indian Central government has recently announced that the government may use the protato in its midday meal programme for schools as early as next year.

Why should “scientific progress”, with huge potential benefits to the poor and malnourished, be so controversial' The anti-GM lobby contends that pernicious propaganda has vastly exaggerated the benefits of GM and completely evaded the costs which will have to be incurred if the GM food industry is allowed to grow unchecked. In particular, they allude to at least three different types of costs.

This group contends that the most important potential cost is that the widespread distribution and growth of GM food will enable the corporate world (alias the MNCs) to completely capture the food chain. A “small” group of biotech companies will patent the transferred genes as well as the technology associated with them. They will then buy up the competing seed merchants and seed-breeding centres, thereby controlling the production of food at every possible level. Independent farmers, big and small, will be completely wiped out of the food industry. At best, they will be reduced to the status of being sub-contractors.

This line of argument goes on to claim that the control of the food chain will be disastrous for the poor since the MNCs, guided by the profit motive, will only focus on the high-value food items demanded by the affluent. Thus, in the long run, the production of basic staples which constitute the food basket of the poor will taper off. However, this vastly overestimates the power of the MNCs. Even if the research promoted by them does focus on high-value food items — as indeed they are most likely to do — much of biotechnology research is also funded by governments in both developing as well as developed countries. Indeed, the protato is a by-product of this type of research. If the protato passes the field trials, there is no reason to believe that it cannot be marketed in the global potato market. And this type of success story can be repeated with other basic food items.

The second type of cost associated with the GM food industry is environmental damage. The most common type of “genetic engineering” involves gene modification in plants designed to make them resistant to applications of weedkillers. This then enables farmers to use massive dosages of weedkillers so as to destroy or wipe out all competing varieties of plants in their fields. However, some weeds through GM pollen contamination may acquire resistance to a variety of weedkillers. The only way to destroy these weeds is through the use of ever stronger herbicides which are poisonous and linger on in the environment.

This is a trickier issue — the jury must be still out on this one because there is no conclusive evidence either way about the environmental impact of GM pollination. The anti-GM lobby cites evidence from Canada where rapeseed is said to have developed resistance to several pesticides. The pro-GM lobby counters this by evidence from early Danish studies which seem to indicate that GM crops actually boost numbers of local wild birds and insects. More definitive evidence is likely to become available soon when scientists in the United Kingdom analyse evidence from several field trials to assess the effects of herbicide-resistant crops on wildlife in the UK.

The third type of cost is supposed to be the effects of GM food on human health. This is the “cost” which has figured most prominently in the Western media. Indeed, public apprehension about the supposed adverse effects has been instrumental in promoting a competing food industry in the West — the organic food industry. Organic foods are grown “naturally”, that is without the use of chemicals in any form. Given the media hype, it is quite surprising that virtually nothing is known about the effects of GM food on human health because there have been no clinical or epidemiological studies.

Most people (but surprisingly not all) will agree that scientific progress has transformed the world for the better. Of course, this is not to deny the existence of “rogue scientists” who can use scientific knowledge to further individual interests at the expense of the public good. Perhaps the GM controversy needs to be viewed from this perspective. There is no reason to believe that scientific knowledge cannot be harnessed to produce more nutritional food at lower cost. At the same time, regulatory measures are needed in order to ensure that adequate safeguards are undertaken in order to minimize risks of environmental damage.

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