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Biotechnology’s Standard Bearer

By Sonia Chopra
September 7, 2000

Shivani Arjun picks out ripe red apples, polished green cucumbers and orange carrots. The Greenville, South Carolina, resident just wants her produce to be fresh, pure and natural. But biotechnologists like C. S. Prakash believe that science can do better than nature.

If Prakash had his way, all produce would be genetically altered to include pesticides and vitamins to make them bigger, juicier and more resistant to disease.

Most consumers shy away from terms like “genetically altered” or “modified” because they feel that it is tampering with nature. Also, because the technology is only 20 years old, shoppers find it hard to believe that food designed in a laboratory can be as tasty as traditionally cultivated food.

But Prakash, 43, has many reasons why genetically altered produce is a benefit: “These modifications increase crop yields, which alleviate starvation in developing countries,” he says. “The modified food is healthier, lasts longer and crops can be designed that are cheaper to produce and are drought resistant.”

Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics and the director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, is passionate about the subject. “Many scientists aim to eradicate diseases and help the poor. This technology will be given to them free of cost,” he says.

He oversees research on food crops important to developing countries and the training of scientists and students in plant biotechnology—all while working to promote acceptance of biotechnology in food and agriculture around the world, both in the scientific and marketing fields. Prakash also writes newspaper op-ed articles and delivers public lectures.

Prakash continues to play up the many advantages of genetically modified food. Not only can it can be designed to last longer than traditionally grown produce, biotechnology enables us to produce tastier tomatoes, which are easier to pack thus lowering the cost of transportation.

But he worries about the perception people have of genetically altered crops. “It is something new, and their fears are played up by the media,” he says. Besides, he points out, there are no such things as safe foods.

“In most cases, foods themselves do not cause illnesses or infection,” he adds. “It is the mishandling in storing, shipping or the cleaning that leads to E. coli and salmonella.” He continues: “And so-called natural foods are not even in a small degree as thoroughly tested as the modified crops. Do we know how much food from pesticide-sprayed fields we eat?”

In bioengineering, scientists draw juice samples from produce and examine the thousands of different genes. They may take one or two genes and inject them into the produce they want to improve. That genetically altered piece then produces seeds with the altered makeup, which can then be mass-produced.

Prakash says that it is no different than crossbreeding broccoli and cauliflower to make brocco-flowers and claims that no one has ever gotten sick from bioengineered vegetables.

He also says genetically modified foods have reduced the amount of pesticides used by a million pounds over the past three years, which helps the environment. These foods also help protect forests because a higher yield can be grown in the same stretch of land, which means we don’t have to cut down as many trees to make room for more agricultural lands.

Medically, the foods have benefits with which few can argue. “We have developed plants that produce vaccines against rabies and cholera, which can save a million lives,” Prakash notes. “Beta carotene has been added to rice to combat blindness in millions of children whose diets are deficient in Vitamin A. Edible vaccines, delivered in locally grown crops could do more to eliminate disease than the Red Cross missionaries and the U.N. task forces combined, at a fraction of the cost.”

He believes that consumers have to be educated to eliminate their fears about genetically altered foods. “Scientifically we have been mixing and matching through cross-breeding for the past 100 years. This technology gives us more precision to be productive,” Prakash says.

Crops such as soybeans, corn and potatoes have already been genetically altered. Other scientists are also working on peaches, apples and other fruits and vegetables.

In peaches, Prakash observes, researchers are looking for genes from other crops that are resistant to the bacteria that attack the fruit. They also want to add more protein to foods such as rice and sweet potatoes, and include vaccines in them in some countries like Bangladesh.

Using genetics, we could give potatoes higher starch content, create corn that could produce its own pesticide, and add beta-carotene to rice to help prevent blindness in poor countries.

Prakash lives in Auburn, Alabama, with his wife Leela, 41, a pharmacist, and his two sons Sundeep, 15, and Roshan, 8. He has been a research scientist at Tuskegee for the last 11 years.

Born in Bangalore, he grew up surrounded by science and mathematics, as his father Sunder Rao was a medical representative and his mother Sunanda Roa, 66, who still lives in Bangalore, was a biology teacher.

As part of a Brahmin family, Prakash had a vegetarian diet and still does. His children eat meat.

He graduated from the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and master’s degree in genetics. He obtained a doctorate in agriculture from the National University of Canberra, Australia.

In 1982, he immigrated to the United States and did his post-doctoral work at the University of Lexington, before moving to Alabama.