Looking for Answers
Answers to these questions have been as variant as the questions are. While a fraction of the people in the so-called farmers lobbies, believe that biotechnology is nothing beyond an MNC invasion into Indian agriculture, there are groups of scientists both in the corporate and research faculties who believe that agricultural biotechnology is the best option available today to overcome the relentless demand for food against a not so equal food production.
Even while groping for answers, Deccan Herald decided to talk to Dr Channapatna S Prakash, Professor, Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee University, Alabama, USA on what he thinks are the myths about biotechnology that need to be resolved on a war footing.
The apprehensions about biotechnology are not unexpected. After all anything new, in our case biotechnology, is put under scrutiny. Thats natural. The way we understand human behaviour, it is his survival instinct to question the validity of what he eats which justifies his doubts about GM or transgenic foods. Thats is not a cause for concern.
However, an orchestrated opposition from certain groups of people, which builds upon this basic apprehension and converts it into fear in the public minds is uncalled for. Added to that is the fact that many of the regulatory policies pertaining to biotechnological research or GM crop production are not formulated on a scientific basis, says Dr Prakash who oversees research on food crops of importance to developing countries and the training of scientists and students in plant biotechnology, at Tuskegee University.
Dr Prakash has been actively involved in enhancing the societal awareness of food biotechnology issues around the world. His Internet website www.agbioworld.org helps to disseminate information and promote discussion on this subject among scientists, policy makers, activists and journalists. He has served on the USDAs Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee and continues to serve on the Advisory Committee for the Department of Biotechnology for the Government of India.
His outreach activities include writing commentaries, delivering public lectures, providing media interviews, and moderating the daily Internet discussion group and newsletter AgBioView.
Dr Prakash has a bachelors degree in agriculture and a masters in genetics from India, and obtained his PhD in forestry/genetics from the Australian National University, Canberra. His research interests include studies on transgenic plants, gene expression, tissue culture and plant genomics. His group at Tuskegee has led the development of transgenic sweet potato plants, identification of DNA markers in peanut and the development of a genetic map of cultivated peanut. Recently they enhanced the protein content of crops through genetic modification.
One of the biggest concerns about Bt crops has been that they have not delivered as they promised. Consider Bt cotton cultivation in India. Studies have indicated that in areas like Punjab, there was a delay in the planting dates that led to the dip in produce. Also Bt seeds used for cultivation did not appear to be the best available. Over and above that, the drought that affected many areas where Bt was cultivated, have collectively contributed to a fall in production. So Bt is really not the culprit.
Another apprehension is the likelihood of Bt gene contamination and that pollen transfer from a Bt to a wild variety could cause harm. It is common knowledge that a certain level of mixing happens in agricultural fields. As long as that does not cause any health hazard, there is no cause for worry. As regards pollen transfer, plants classified as GM crops are such a domesticated lot that cannot auto-transfer genes into the wild varieties. Even if such transfer did occur, the genes would really not be relevant in the wild variety - for example if a gene for pesticide resistance were to get transferred into a wild variety, it would really serve no purpose in plants growing in the forest. Environmental concerns be it pollination or contamination are not unique to Bt-plants.
The next issue pertaining to Bt crops is the relevance or the irrelevance of labelling. Labelling is basically a method to provide consumers details about the contents of what has been packaged with regard to nutritional value, price, warning of allergens etc. That happens in normal marketing practice. Most products that we buy have these details. So, labelling food products as GM or non-GM must still serve the same purpose and not give rise to any kind of unwarranted fears in the minds of the consumers.
If like Dr Prakash says, GM or transgenic foods are really beneficial
to a farming community like ours, then why the large-scale apprehension
on anything transgenic?
What then are the options available if we are to really appreciate what
biotechnology has to give us?
There it then. The verdict - question biotechnology, clear your apprehensions and appreciate what a dramatic difference it can make to human life.