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The controversy over genetically-modified food continues unabated in the West. Genetic modification (GM) is the science by which the genetic material of a plant is altered, perhaps to make it more resistant to pests or killer weeds, or to enhance its nutritional value. Many food biotechnologies claim that GM will be a major contribution of science to mankind in the $21$st century. On the other hand, large numbers of opponents, mainly in Europe, claim that the benefits of GM are a myth propagated by multinational corporations to increase their profits that they pose a healthy hazard, and have therefore called for governments to ban the sale of genetically-modified food.
The anti-GM compaign has been quite effective in Europe, with several European Union member countries imposing a virtual ban for five years over genetically-modified food imports. Since the genetically-modified food industry is particularly strong in the United State of America, the controversy also constitutes another chapter in the US-Europe skirmishes which have become particularly acerbic after the US invasion of Iraq.
To a large extent, the GM controversy has been ignored in the Indian media, although Indian biotechnologies have been quite active in GM research. Several groups of Indian biotechnologies have been working on various issues connected with crops grown in India. One concrete achievement which has recently figured in the news is that of a team led by the former vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Asis Dutta – it has successively added an extra gene to potatoes to enhance the protein content of the tuber by at least $30$ percent. Not surprisingly, the new potato has been called the protato. The is now in its third year of field trials. It is quite likely that the GM controversy will soon hit the headlines in India since a spokeperson of the Indian Central government has recently announced that the government may use the protato in its midday meal programme for schools as early as next year.
Why should “scientific progress”, with huge potential benefits to the poor and malnourished, be so controversial? The anti-GM lobby contends that pernicious propaganda has vastly exaggerated the benefits of GM and completely evaded the costs which will have to be incurred if the genetically modified food industry is allowed to grow unchecked. In particular, they allude to different types of costs.
This group contends that the most important potential cost is that the widespread distribution and growth of genetically-modified food will enable the corporate world (alias the multinational corporations-MNCs) to completely capture the food chain. A “small” group of biotech companies will patent the transferred genes as well as the technology associated with them. They will then buy up the competing seed merchants and seed breeding, centres, thereby controlling the production of food at every possible level. Independent farmers, big and small, will be completely wiped out of the food industry. At best, they will be reduced to the status of being subcontractors.
This line of argument goes on to clain that the control if the food chain will be disastrous for the poor since the MNCs, guided by the profit motive, will only focus on the high-value food items demanded by the affluent. Thus, in the long run, the production of basis staples which constitute the food basket of the poor will taper off. However, this vastly overestimates the power of the MNCs. Even if the research promoted by them does focus on the high-value food items, much of biotechnology research is also founded by governments in both developing and developed countries. Indeed, the protato is a by-product of this type of research. If the protato passes the field trials, there is no reason to believe that it cannot be marketed in the global potato market. And this type of success story can be repeated with other basic food items.
The second type of cost associated with the genetically modified food industry is environmental damage. The most common type of “genetic engineering” involved gene modification in plants designed to make them resistant to applications if weed-killers. This then enables farmers to use massive dosages of weed-killers so as to destroy or wipe out all competing varieties of plants in their fields. However, some weeds through genetically modified pollen contamination may acquire resistance to a variety of weed-killers. The only way to destroy these weeds is through the use of ever-stronger herbicides, which are poisonous and linger on in the environment.
Genetic modification makes plants more resistant to killer weeds. However, this can lead to environmental damage by
- wiping out competing varieties of plants which now fall prey to killer weeds
- forcing application of stronger herbicides to kill weeds which have become resistant to weak herbicides
- forcing application of stronger herbicides to keep the competing plants weed-free
- not allowing growth of any weeds, thus reducing soil fertility