15 January 2003
PUSZTAI ON THE INDIAN GM POTATO
Comments by Dr Arpad Pusztai on the recent publicity about a GM potato to help fight malnutrition in India. They're taken from personal correspondence with Dr Pusztai's permission.
For more on this issue see: Poviding proteins to the poor Research Foundation for Science Technology & Ecology, India
Thanks for the two articles on the new Indian "PRotato".
As I still regard myself a scientist I cannot outright condemn something just because it had been developed by genetic engineering even though the record of this technology has been abysmal so far. I am also disgusted by the lack of primary peer-reviewed publication on this that really makes it impossible for forming a fact-based opinion. You may also remember the venom that has been poured on me by pro-GM people for "publishing" our results on TV. It never really bothered anyone that in my 150 seconds TV spot I could not have done this even if I had tried to do it but there you are. It looks that any PR job that is pro-GM is alright.
I can give you my preliminary thoughts on this potato based on the hype that is in these two articles but that is all.
Potatoes are tricky things because they are more prone to something what is called somaclonal variation. This simply means that anything you do to the potato (not necessarily gene splicing) and how you grow it will change it, its composition, feeding value, toxicity, etc. Thus, without knowing how the gene splicing was done I cannot even venture an opinion. It is meaningless to say that the GM potato contained one third more protein without knowing how the GM plant was grown and whether it was grown under strictly controlled conditions and side-by-side with the parent line before any comparison is made. As regards the claims of increased essential amino acids; this is again meaningless. The nutritional value of potato proteins is high because its amino acid composition is balanced, containing the right amounts of lysine and methionine. It is not clear that the increased essential amino acid content is the result of the increased protein content or not. So, we are back to my comment above about the protein content.
There is also a claim that this GM potato passed an (undefined) allergenicity test on mice! I am sure, a lot of scientists would like to hear more about this test because it appears that the Indian scientists did not only have a GM potato breakthrough but also have developed an allergenicity test previously unknown. Again, without describing it in an actual scientific paper it is very difficult to judge the validity of this startling scientific claim.
Sooner or later (usually the sooner) when one reads these PR pieces the moral blackmail comes up: "I think it would be morally indefensible to oppose it" as we are told. Scientific, agronomic, nutritional, toxicological, etc considerations do not come into it. If you oppose it you must be a Luddite and a morally reprehensible one at that! I am sick and tired of all this. For all that I know this protato may be a good thing but from the hype I doubt it. Can you grow it in sufficient quantities and cheaply that all those children who cannot at present be given a bit of the 60 million (or how many million?) tonnes of surplus grain that is rotting in India's rat-infested grain storage depots, would be saved by this protato?
I am sure a lot of people and scientists will get a great deal of glory out of it and it may even be a great achievement for all what we know but we, ordinary citizens, will have to take it on trust. Let us hope for India's children's sake that what we are told is in fact true. One thing I have to agree with Dr Sahai that at least this is a homegrown product and the Indians I presume will not be taken to the cleaners by Monsanto and all the other biotech companies using or growing it.