Friday, June 13, 2003


Suman Sahai

There was a startling statement in the press two days ago, that a GM potato variety would be available in India within six months. Curiously, the Genetic Engineering Approval committee (GEAC) has not even received an application to consider approval for the GM potato in question. The chairman of the GEAC has expressed his displeasure at premature pronouncements being made in the press about the release of transgenic crops. His resentment is understandable since it is his turf that is being encroached!

So what is the status of GM potato? Is it six months away? Is it five years away? Who determines these things? What is India’s policy on GM crops? First we had the mess with Mahyco –Monsanto’s Bt cotton that was approved despite several questions about its quality, then its subsequent failure in the field. Then we had the GM mustard, which is in limbo, neither rejected nor approved and now premature announcements on GM potato. India’s policy on GM crops appears to be a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, invisible. Decisions are ad hoc and taken whimsically in the absence of a sound policy framework. The net result is that confusion reigns supreme.

First, the GM potato is quite far away from commercial release. Its promoters appear to be jumping the gun deliberately, in order to pressure the agencies for its release on a human suffering angle. The emotional button for Bt cotton was the farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and the need to give them a cotton variety that would slash the heavy expenditures on pesticides and by inference, stop them killing themselves due to debt burdens. We know now that the Bt cotton practically failed in almost all locations it was grown. The emotional button being pressed for GM potato is malnutrioned children susceptible to blindness and how this potato will solve all of that and bring smiles to their well fed little faces. What is not explained is how the potato supposedly with enriched protein will cure night blindness, which is brought about by vitamin A deficiency. Curing night blindness has been entrusted to Golden Rice whenever it sees the light of day, not potato.

In fact the premature announcement made a specific reference to the fact that as soon as the potato was cleared, it would be given free to millions of school children across the country. This is even more worrisome than the fact that at the moment the GM potato is only an experiment, not a product. If the GM potato is improved to the extent that the protein content rises significantly, and it is judged to be safe, we could discuss its merits then. At the moment it will do nothing for school children except expose them to an untested food, which could have harmful effects. Potatoes belong to the botanical family Solanacea, the same family as the poisonous nightshade, a family known to have many plant toxins.

This talk of feeding GM potatoes to schoolchildren is unacceptable adventurism. If there is such an urgent need to save these children, food supplements can be added to their school meals. This will be a safer and more certain path to nutritional enhancement than rushing untested GM potatoes to them. Nutritional enhancement by food supplements is easy to do in schools and has an established tradition. It is difficult to make the case for GM potatoes as a preferred route for enhanced dietary protein, compared for example to pulses or soya blended wheat flour.

As it stands today, even the science done on GM potato is inadequate and we are talking about an incompletely tested product. One thing is clear to everyone that the increase in protein in the GM potato is negligible and will make no real difference nutritionally. This has been emphasised by scientists working at the central Potato Research Institute. What has not been brought out is the fact that this GM potato might not even pan out, not in 2005, not ever. We do not know yet because the appropriate experiments have not been done to test whether this transgenic potato is stable or not.

All the experiments on the GM potato so far have been done only on the vegetative cycle, which means we do not know how the variety behaves when it is sexually reproduced (flowering and setting seed). At present we cannot say anything about the stability of the transgenic potato in the long run since studies on gene insertion have been done only in one vegetative generation, not in several sexual generations, as it should be.

Potato is mostly vegetatively propagated in India , which means , potatoes are cut up into pieces and serve as ‘seed’ for sowing the next crop. The little pieces grow into bigger potatoes and when they are large enough, the crop is harvested and so it goes from crop to crop. During the potato cultivation process in the plains, no flowering takes place, no seed is set and there is no “next generation” as is for example, the case with wheat and rice.

Before any judgement can be passed on the value of the GM potato, studies need to be conducted to evaluate the stability of the gene from one generation to the next generation, to ensure that the amaranth protein gene is actually integrated into the genetic material of the potato. If this is not the case and if the gene is only temporarily lodged somewhere, the protein expression in the potato will be unstable , it may vary in amounts from potato to potato and from crop cycle to crop cycle. It may even disappear altogether. Such an unstable variety cannot be given to farmers.

Stability of gene insertion cannot be tested in the vegetative cycle only, it must be tested through sexual cycles of flowering and setting seed. For this the GM potato variety needs to be grown and tested in the cooler climates of high altitudes where flowering and seed setting takes place. This work has not yet been done for the GM potato that is being promoted. So we have no idea whether the gene is stably integrated, how many copies of the gene have been integrated? One? Many? What else is inserted along with the amaranth gene? Is there foreign genetic material there, which could create problems later? Putting the variety through several crop generations can answer many of these questions.

Apart from protecting the farmers from an unstable variety, there is the question of liability. Whoever markets this variety should be fully aware that if the potato shows itself to be unstable and the genetic function of the protein gene is unreliable, it is likely that legal suits for compensation will be brought against them. If India wants to use agro-biotechnology, its scientific and regulatory establishment will clearly have to demonstrate far greater maturity and responsibility than it is doing at present.

No comments:

Post a Comment