The AgBioIndia Bulletin

Presenting the Real Picture
12 June 2003
Sub: GM potato report to misguide people

Suddenly genetically modified potato being developed by a team of scientists, led by a former vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru Univerity, New Delhi, and now the chairman of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulations (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology, is in the news. Print and electronic media in Europe and America is screaming at this wonderful potato that it says is the hope for a malnourished India.

This is completely a hoax.

 There can be no bigger a misrepresentation of facts than what is being claimed in the name of GM potato. It therefore exposes the manipulative game that is played in the name of eradicating hunger and malnutrition. The Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology has been quoted as saying that the GM potato contains 40 per cnet proteins. Utterly nonsense ! All it contains is 2.5 per cent protein (potato normally have 1.98 per cent protein) and with this increase, the GM scientists are getting ready to take on the fight against malnutrition. They surely live in a blind world !!

We normally do not repeat our stories. But considering the (mis)information campaign that has been launched worldover (surprisingly, not a word appears about the virtues of GM potato in India !), we are compelled to reproduce Devinder Sharma's excellent analysis on the GM potato issue vis a vis the malnutrition crisis that India is faced with.

1. Notice Board:  Farmers selling cattle to avoid starvation -- IANS
2. GM Potato: A magic bullet or mere hype? --- Devinder Sharma
1. Farmers selling cattle to avoid starvation
By Mohammed Shafeeq, Indo-Asian News Service

Bhongir (Nalgonda district), June 6 (IANS) With no respite from the sweltering heat, it is not human beings alone who are suffering -- animals too are dying.  With the agricultural fields literally turning into deserts in drought-affected Andhra Pradesh, the farmers are selling their cattle for slaughter in towns and cities.  The farmers, finding themselves in misery due to three years of drought, are disposing of cattle in order to make some money to support their families.

The severe drought has also led to serious shortage of fodder, resulting in the death of hundreds of cattle. But the authorities are not maintaining any statistics about the number of cattle dying of heat and hunger.  Farmers from nearby villages arrive here with their cattle every day to sell the animals to traders. The animals are then transported to towns and cities for slaughter.  "They will anyway die when taken to slaughter houses but this will at least save them from the pain and suffering of hunger and the heat," said Kumraiah, while selling his cattle in Chandupatna village of Nalgonda, one of the worst affected districts in the current heat wave.

Of 1,235 people who have died in the state in three weeks of heat wave, about 200 deaths have been reported from Nalgonda alone. The villages are deserted as temperature is crossing 47 degrees Celsius and those daring to go out in order to earn a few rupees to make both ends meet are dying of sunstroke.

Dozens of carcasses are lying at the Veterinary Hospital in Bhoongir town. The officials at the hospitals said the cattle were suffering from various diseases mainly due to lack of fodder and the scorching summer. "The situation is alarming. There is no food and water for farmers, agricultural labourers and their families. The conditions are worse for cattle," said Janardhan Reddy, chairman of the Atmakur Milk Society.

Some shepherds can be seen herding sheep and goats through the barren fields under the scorching sun. Sataiah, one of the shepherds, spoke about the death of sheep and goats during the last three weeks.  "It is not possible to even count the deaths," he said. According to him, the farmers and villagers who own the cattle were forced to sell them at lower price to traders coming from towns and cities. Anjaneyulu, an agricultural worker, sold his bull for just Rs.2,000. The same bull costs Rs.10,000 in normal days.

"Nobody is going to pay me that price now. I decided to sell it to make some money as my family of four is facing near starvation," he said. Although the state government has announced a 60 percent subsidy on fodder and is making arrangements to supply fodder to save the cattle, the farmers don't have the money to buy fodder.

"We are finding difficult to get food and water for ourselves. How can we buy fodder for our cattle?" asked Jangaiah, another farmer.
2. GM Potato
Magic Bullet or mere hype?
By Devinder Sharma

After the failure of the much-hyped 'golden rice', comes another magic bullet from the trashcan of biotechnology industry -- a protein-rich genetically modified potato -- to combat malnutrition in India. It looks as if agricultural scientists have suddenly woken up to the lingering crisis on the nutritional front and are desperately looking for technological remedies to fight the scourge of mankind - silent hunger.

'Hidden hunger' or 'silent hunger', as it is called, is the new buzzword in the scientific echelons. For thirty years after the advent of green revolution technology, scientists are rediscovering the importance of nutritional security for masses. The desperation is not in reality aimed at addressing the problems of 'hidden hunger' but are more tuned to according public acceptance to the controversial science and technology of genetic engineering. The 'magic bullets' therefore fail to enthuse the hungry masses.

At the time of the green revolution, the high yielding varieties of wheat were bred for increased yield potential at the cost of reduction in nutrients. Both the characters - yield and protein - are negatively correlated in the sense that if you were to breed for higher productivity, it is at the cost of quality protein. The productivity increase in wheat and subsequently in rice was justified on the plea that the country needed to feed the hungry millions.

For the next 30 years or so, while agricultural scientists remained dumbfounded on the necessity to increase micronutrient deficiency, the policy makers too remained blind to the existing ground realities as a result of which, crops that could meet the requirements of nutritional security did not attract attention. Such was the callous neglect and apathy that agriculture was sacrificed at the altar of GDP and economic growth once the country achieved food 'self-sufficiency'. With the result that those who were hungry, also suffered acutely from malnutrition and the related ailments. And those who were chronically malnourished were the easy victims of natural calamities like severe cold or the heat wave.

For an average Indian, the common menu revolves around 'dal' and 'roti'. While the 'roti' (or Indian bread) was easily accessible (if you had the purchasing power), the availability of 'dal' (or pulses/lentils) has been on a continuous decline. Pulses being the crop of marginal areas, were ideally suitable for the rainfed areas, which account for 70 per cent of the country 's land under plough. Pulses require very less water and are known to enrich the soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen. The neglect of pulses pushed the prices of the common 'dal' beyond the reach of an average Indian, with the result that micronutrient deficiency continued to grow.

Pulses on an average contain 20-24 per cent protein. Any effort to increase the production of pulses would have helped reduce the prices thereby making it easily accessible. It didn't happen. Instead, the country, which consumes the largest quantity of pulses gradually turned into a major importer. India today imports pulses in large quantities from Australia and Canada. Such were the lopsided policies that in fact, at one stage, India was contemplating 'contract farming' for pulses in Africa to meet the country's need. There has been no effort at all to encourage the domestic farmers to cultivate pulses, and pull the crop out from the marginal areas.

At the same time, production of cereals continued to grow. With globalisation adding on to unemployment, even the cereals went out of the reach of the masses. With the result, the country is saddled with over 50 million tones of wheat and rice whereas some 320 million people go to bed empty stomach. Agricultural scientists have steadfastly refused to address the problem of mounting stocks terming it as a political problem. But when the political masters started asking farmers not to produce more, and questions began to be raised as to the relevance of the massive agricultural research infrastructure (the second biggest in the world), agricultural scientists began looking for opportunities to justify the public investment into a redundant white elephant - the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

'Golden rice' was the first such magic bullet (see the accompanying box). The ICAR was quick to latch on hoping that it would perhaps salvage some of its lost prestige. And then came the magic of GM potato, which is being developed by a team of scientists led by Dr Asis Datta, a former vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Dr Datta has the rare privilege of heading the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology and at the same time being recipient of major funding from the department. And Dr Govindarajan Padmanaban, a former director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, has been instrumental in a controversial tie up between Monsanto and the IISc, and has often stood up as a blind supporter of the GM technology.

Nevertheless, the transgenic potato that is under field trials, has a gene called AmA1 from amaranth that gives it some 50 per cent more (some say a third more)  protein than normal, including substantial amounts of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine. Dr Padmanaban says he hoped Western-based environmental groups and charities would not criticise the potato as they did a "golden rice" developed by AstraZeneca's to make more vitamin A. "The requirements of developing countries are very different from those of rich countries. I think it would be morally indefensible to oppose it, " he was quoted as saying in the New Scientist.

Box: Golden Bluff

Ostensibly, in a desperate effort to repair its damaged credibility, the GE industry is all set to unleash its "secret weapon", and that too on millions of unsuspecting destitute smallholders in the developing world.

But what is not being understood is that like all other "secret weapons", the 'golden rice' too is an ecological and health hazard.  Nor is it the answer to the nutritional needs of the small producers and the poverty-stricken masses in the South.  It can provide at best a miniscule need of micro-nutrients.  The remaining intake will have to be met from other nutritional sources.  In India, for instance, rice is consumed invariably with a combination of pulses, which provide the essential proteins and vitamins that the human body requires. So is it in other developing countries.

Syngenta's Dr Adrian Dubock recently claimed that "the levels of expression of pro-vitamin A that the inventors were aiming at, and have achieved, are sufficient to provide the minimum level of pro-vitamin A to prevent the development of irreversible blindness affecting 500,000 children annually, and to significantly alleviate Vit A deficiency affecting 124,000,000 children in 26 countries." He also stated that each month 'golden rice' entrance to the market is delayed will result in 50,000 children going blind.  However, a simple calculation based on recommended daily allowance (RDA) figures show an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 gms of rice to get the daily recommended amount of pro-vitamin A from 'golden rice'. Moreover,  Vit A availability depends upon fat absorption ratio. Those who are hungry and malnourished do not have adequate fats to absorb Vit A that is being made available.

Micro-nutrient deficiency in human food is nothing new.  But societies over the centuries have evolved and perfected dietary systems that adequately takes care of the nutrient balance that the human body needs.  What is perplexing is as to who decided that Vit A is the most essential micro-nutrient that is required to be incorporated in rice?  And why not Vit B complex?  After all, several hundred million people in India alone suffer from malnutrition (as compared to only half a million people worldwide who get blinded from vitamin A deficiency).  In India alone, some 12 million people suffer from Vit A deficiency, but the number of people who are dificit in Vit B complex is several times more.

In India, under an Indo-Swiss collaboration, 'golden rice' technology is to be made available to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Indian Department of Biotechnology.  The project, funded to the tune of U.S. $ 2.6 million over seven years aims to engineer the pro-vitamin A genes into local varieties of rice.

ICAR's tryst with "golden rice" is in reality a blind experimentation and a desperate attempt to regain its lost pride in agricultural research. Suffering from a credibility crisis in the absence of any significant breakthrough after the initial phase of 'green revolution', ICAR's aim is to distract attention from more pressing problems confronting the rural society.  A majority of the acutely malnourished people, that the proponents of 'golden rice' claim to be targeting, are the ones who cannot afford to buy rice from the market.  If these poor people cannot afford to buy normal rice, how will they buy the 'golden rice' is a question that has been very conveniently overlooked.  If these hungry millions were able to meet their daily requirement of rice, there would be no malnutrition at the first place.  The problem, therefore, cannot be addressed by providing nutritional supplements through genetically modified rice but by bringing in suitable policy changes that forces the governments to ensure food for all.

Not being a western environmentalist, let us make an attempt to decipher the great 'scientific' achievement. It is true that potato is part of the common Indian diet. It is also true that potato is priced so low that it can be afforded by even the slum-dwellers. Although potato (especially the way it is cooked in India) has been held responsible for obesity and other health-related problems that afflicts the trendy generation, it is very low in proteins. Potato, on an average, contains 1.98 per cent protein. Even if its availability has been enhanced by 30 per cent, the protein percentage comes to 2.5 per cent. How will this 'protein-rich' potato help solve malnutrition in the country? With 2.5 per cent protein, how will the country 's nutritional security be addressed? These scientists must be blind to the ground realities.

About the availability of amino acids, this is what Dr Arpad Pustzai has to say:  As regards the claims of increased essential amino acids; it is 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."  At the same time, some reports point to another flaw. The protein is expressed more in the leaves than in the potato itself. It must also be ascertained as to what has been the cost involved in producing and developing the transgenic potato. Isn't it time the civil society questions the wisdom of such expensive research projects when simple and adaptive technological solutions and the right policy mix can make a monumental difference. If only the plant scientists had focused more on the policy framework that needs to be put in, hunger and hidden hunger would have disappeared by now.

While Dr Padmanaban has already gone to the media (without any peer review of the research findings), expressing anguish at the efforts to derail such a 'magic' nutritional product that is being developed through genetic manipulation, the scientific community remains elusive about a major achievement by Indian agricultural scientists that can go a long way in improving nutritional security. At the National Centre for Conservation and Utilization of Blue-Green Algae, New Delhi, scientists have developed a mutant strain of Spirulina that contains 80 per cent protein. Normally, Spirulina, which falls in the category of cyanobacteria, carries 65 per cent proteins. For two years, scientists have been sitting with the wonder strain of Spirulina but there is no enthusiasm. It use in human, animal, agricultural and nutritional needs has been well documented but no one seems to be as excited as the molecular biologists are over the GM potato. The reason is simple: there is no industry for promoting and applying such useful technologies.

The global effort to shift the focus of agricultural research from addressing immediate hunger to 'hidden hunger' is in reality an effort to postpone the real problems confronting the society. Scientists and socio-economists need to come out with strategies that make available the abundant food rotting in the countryside to the needy. By diverting attention from the more pressing problems of hunger and starvation, scientists are merely trying to protect their own livelihood security. They know for sure that any attempt to eradicate 'hidden hunger' is bound to fail unless an all out attack is launched to first remove hunger. 'Hidden hunger' cannot be removed without eradicating hunger. And that is what the 'cutting-edge' science refuses to accept. #

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst.
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From: Hindu Business Line, New Delhi, Feb 12, 2003.