2-Food: GE 'protato' to feed India's poor
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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
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
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
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
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
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
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."
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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