ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

2 February 2002


Food for Tort

Are genetically modified organisms 'frankenstein food' or a 'panacea for the world's hungry'? Transparency is vital, says John Fagan, microbiologist, and founder and chief scientific officer of Genetic ID NA, which licenses GMO testing methods and certification. He tells Narayani Ganesh that equitable distribution of existing agricultural produce needs more urgent attention than hasty implementation of new and unproven methods of production:

Q: Do you think biotechnology will solve the world's food problems?

A: Absolutely not. If you're interested in simply feeding the hungry, you can take three times the area of Iowa, and the food cultivated there will be enough to feed the world's hungry. The limitation is not productivity, the limitation is distribution. What is really using up resources at this point is that most of the agricultural acres on this planet are producing feed for livestock for the meat industry. Seventeen times as much soy is needed to produce one pound of meat as is required to feed one human being.

To me, it's exploitation by the biotech industry to say that biotech is the only solution to the hunger problem. First, production is not the fundamental problem.

Second, we cannot expect the kind of increase in productivity from biotech that was witnessed in the green revolution through irrigation, seeds and fertilisers.

Third, we need to address socio-economic and political issues and the poor infrastructure. Only then can we solve the world's food problem.

Q: Apart from a few stray cases of toxic GM potatoes and allergen GM soya, what are the perceived risks to public health?

A: Don't dismiss them as "stray cases". Each GMO has to be individually assessed for health risks and effects on the environment. No one can make a blanket statement that GMOs are 'safe' or 'not safe'.

Recently, a whole batch of Tacobell's Tacoshells had to be withdrawn from US supermarkets as they were suspected to be allergenic. Although there's no specific proof, research has shown that particular corn variety is indeed allergenic.

Q: Would you recommend that all DNA-recombinant technology research should be abandoned?

A: Absolutely not. Recombinant DNA techniques are powerful research tools. Expansion of human knowledge must go on. The question is, is it appropriate that everything that's discovered in the laboratory should immediately be put into the marketplace? Safety assessment procedures in this area are not particularly strong.

The US Drug Administration, for instance, has never stated that any GMO is safe. When the FDA issues a certificate to a biotech company, the research cited is generated by the company's confidential internal resources, not subject to peer review.

In most other countries like India, biotechnology is advancing at a faster rate than the legal system where laws do exist, they're reactive, not proactive.

Q: Biotechnologists claim GM crops like 'golden' rice help developing countries deal with problems like Vitamin A deficiency.

A: Golden rice is being touted as a panacea for those suffering from Vitamin A deficiency. But nearly two kg (dry) of this rice would have to be consumed daily by an individual to meet her Vitamin A requirement. It's ridiculous. It takes our attention away from better solutions.

At CMAT in Lucknow, I was told by the director that they've identified two or three plant (food) varieties that actually contain very high levels of betacarotene just three or four leaves from these plants mixed with your food will give you all the Vitamin A you need.

Q: Are your GMO testing methods being used in India?

A: We've established a strategic alliance with Avesthagen, a biotechnology company in Bangalore. In Europe, it is mandatory for any product that contains more than one per cent of genetically modified material to be labelled as genetically engineered.

All of Europe including the UK, all 15 EU countries plus Norway, Switzerland, Croatia, Russia and some East European countries have similar mandatory regulations.

However, there is no such requirement either in the US or Canada - these two major  industrial countries and Argentina are the only countries that produce large amounts of GMOs.

Q: Is most of this exported or is it used for domestic consumption?

A: Public awareness is depressing the market for GMOs, so they tend to export more. But Brazilian soyabean, for instance, is understood around the world to be not genetically modified whereas North American produce is understood as being GM.

So Brazilian produce fetches a handsome premium in the international market. Australia and New Zealand too have mandatory labelling regulations. So also China.

Q: But China is reportedly going the whole hog, adopting biotechnology on a huge scale in its agriculture.

A: Yes, but this is all hearsay. Their regulations state very clearly that if anything contains GMOs, it has to be labelled as such. This restricts the import of GMOs. The question, 'who does it benefit?' is important.

If you look at the GMOs being commercialised worldwide today, you would say that it is a replay of the green revolution, which benefited large-scale commercial farmers, not the marginal farmer.

Q: But didn't the green revolution make available more food to a larger number of people?

A: The infrastructure required to get that food to everyone who needs it is still lacking. Distribution is the key. Unfortunately the history of food distribution around the world shows that we are sadly lacking in an altruistic approach. A hi-tech approach to agriculture uses more energy per acre than you get out in food by way of calories. That is not sustainable.

We have alternative approaches if we only look around us - organic agriculture is environment-friendly, free from chemicals, with its own natural integrated pest-management system using bio-pesticides and bio-control agents, using natural strategies.

Q: But biotech is only trying to emulate natural evolutionary processes that have been going on for thousands of years.

A: In genetic engineering, changes are made in a week or two months that wouldn't happen in nature for say 1,000 years.

By randomly introducing a new DNA into a gene you're disrupting the natural structure/sequence of that DNA Every time you make a GMO you're undertaking an insertional mutagenesis.

Biolistics - invading a gene with DNA-coated tungsten particles by shooting them into the plant cells - seeks to alter DNA blueprints that have undergone rigorous natural checks and balances.

Your traditional knowledge base appears to me to be the most valuable resource that India has. If you look at the knowledge contained in Ayurveda and other Vedic traditions, you'll find a whole system that has been greatly undervalued at this point of time. And this body of knowledge, I feel, has the potential to transform India and the world.

I'm not against the new technology -- I'm concerned about how we use it. The best application I see today in biotechnology is in producing drugs that can stimulate the immune system. We need to look at the larger picture.
for more on the issue of feeding the hungry see:

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