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TITLE:  Genetically modified 'protato' to feed India's poor
SOURCE: The New Scientist, UK, by Andy Coghlan
DATE:   Jan 02, 2003

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Genetically modified 'protato' to feed India's poor

Genetically modified potatoes will play a key part in an ambitious 15-year 
plan to combat malnutrition among India's poorest children. Anti-poverty 
campaigners have greeted the "protato" with cautious support.

The three-pronged attack on childhood mortality would aim to provide 
children with clean water, better food and vaccines. "Zero child mortality 
in underprivileged children would be the goal," says Govindarajan 
Padmanaban, a biochemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Formulated in collaboration with charities, scientists, government 
institutes and industry, the anti-hunger plan is under consideration by the 
Indian government.

Meanwhile, the protein-rich GM potatoes are in the final stages of testing, 
prior to being submitted for approval. Padmanaban, who outlined the plan at 
a conference at the Royal Society in London in December, hopes Western-
based environmental groups and charities will not demonise the project in 
the same way as they did AstraZeneca's "golden rice", a strain modified to 
make more vitamin A.

"The requirements of developing countries are very different from those of 
rich countries," he says. "I think it would be morally indefensible to 
oppose it."

Essential amino acids

Asis Datta's team at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi added the 
AmA1 gene to potatoes, with the result that they make a third more protein 
than usual, including substantial amounts of the essential amino acids 
lysine and methionine.

AmA1 is a gene from the amaranth plant, a crop long grown by native South 
Americans and now available in some Western health food stores.

"The potato doesn't contain a pesticide gene," says Padmanaban. "It's a 
gene that improves nutrition, and it's from another plant that is already 
eaten. Moreover, it's not a known allergen."

That might help make it acceptable in India, where local activists oppose 
the recent licensing of Bt cotton - which carries a gene for a bacterial 
pesticide - on the grounds it is "unnatural", and that it could kill 
beneficial insects.

 Midday meal

The idea is that the potatoes will form part of a midday meal to redress 
deficiencies in children's diets. A lack of lysine, for example, can affect 
brain development.

The potato should only be adopted if it passes all safety and environmental 
requirements, and if the extra protein is digestible, says Suman Sahai of 
Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based sustainable development group opposed to the 
patenting of plants. However, Sahai says the team's goal is far more worthy 
than, say, creating crops resistant to a company's own weedkiller.

"If you're going to use GM at all, use it for this," she says. "India's 
problem is that we're vegetarian, so pulses and legumes are the main 
protein source, but they're in short supply and expensive. The potato is 
good because it's cheap."

Independent assessment

Siddharth Deva, policy adviser for south Asia for the British-based charity 
Oxfam, agrees that the potato could serve a useful purpose. But he calls 
for the government's judgements on GM crops to be independently assessed by 
panels of experts, including environmentalists. "We want to ensure that 
introductions of GM crops don't have harmful implications," he says.

The potato is not the first protein-enriched crop. Strains of GM maize rich 
in lysine have already been created. It is not necessary to resort to 
genetic engineering, of course: bread and wheat flour can also be enriched 
in protein simply by adding, say, peanut flour.

But this is costlier and none of the various schemes to provide such bread 
to malnourished children since the 1960s has survived, despite the benefits.


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