The GM Potato
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
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
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
'Golden rice' was the first
such magic bullet (see the annexed item- Golden Bluff). 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
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.
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 a maximum of 1.98per cent protein. Even if
its availability has been enhanced by 50 per cent, the protein percentage
comes to 3 per cent. How will this 'protein-rich' potato help solve
malnutrition in the country? With 3 per cent protein, and let us hope
researchers are able to raise it to say 5 per cent, how will the country's
nutritional security be addressed?
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
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.
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
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.
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
policy changes that forces the governments to ensure food for all.
Devinder Sharma is a New
Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses can be emailed