3 January 2003

Creation of GM potato to fight hunger sets India's scientists against green groups

By Charles Arthur Technology Editor

As the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops rages in the West, Indian scientists are pushing ahead with their search for a solution to hunger in the Third World.

Their latest weapon is a GM potato called the "protato" because it contains more protein than normal ones.

Taste of things to come

Flavr savr tomato

First genetically engineered consumer food, made by Calgene (a company later acquired by Monsanto). Went on sale in US in May 1994. Had a longer shelf-life because the gene that causes rotting was slowed.

BT maize

Made by several biotechnology companies, BT maize contains genes from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis which produce a toxin that is deadly to the European corn borer (also a major pest in the US). Tests in 1999, however, showed that the pollen of BT maize is toxic to monarch butterflies.

Roundup-ready soya beans

Sparked controversy in Europe when shipped over in 1996 from the US, where they had been grown. Soya beans are used in many processed foods, including bread and biscuits. Resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, but the beans had no intentional difference from normal Soya beans.

Vaccine potatoes and fruit

Researchers in the US and Australia are working on technologies – some initially developed in the UK – to create GM plants that would be able to stimulate the immune system to create defences against illnesses such as measles and "Delhi belly". A British company, Axis Genetics, which had been in the lead with this technology, went bust at the end of 1999. But,
in the future, acquiring resistance to diseases could be as simple as eating an apple a day.

Golden rice

Announced in 1999 by scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Freiburg in Germany, this contains extra vitamin A and iron in the rice seed, rather than the husk.

The scientists argue that children who eat two ounces of the rice per day would stave off deficiencies in those essential dietary components.

Having had limited field trials in India and passed allergenic tests on mice, the potatoes are now subject to final testing before being submitted to the Indian government for approval. They are in every sense home-grown: the extra gene added to them was identified and isolated by a team led by Professor Asis Datta in Delhi, and the aim is that they improve diets in the poorest communities.

Yet opinion remains divided over whether this – and many other "functional" transgenic foods – is the right way to tackle malnutrition.

In the view of the pressure group Greenpeace, the answer is no. "We're opposed to the release of GM crops in the wider environment because the environmental impact is very, very negative," said Charlie Kronick, a GM campaigner at Greenpeace.

"The experience in the farm-scale trials in the UK shows a faster spread of interbreeding with normal plants than was expected."

He also points out, as many aid agencies have done for years, that malnutrition is less due to under-production of food than because of political problems in getting food to the people who need it.

Even so, Delhi is starting a 15-year plan to fight malnutrition among India's poorest children, aiming to provide clean water, vaccines and better food – the last-named served partly by the "protato".

It was developed by Professor Datta – a US-trained scientist who was the first Indian to patent genes – and his team at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. It incorporates the AmA1 gene from the aramanth plant, native to South America and sold in Western healthfood stores.

The gene increases the protein in the potato by a third. A typical potato has about 2g of usable protein per 100g (and 78g of water). Ashok Chaudhary, a research associate at the Tata Energy Research Institute in Delhi, said transgenic potatoes "show a significant increase in all essential amino acids, including lysine, tryptophan, tyrosine and sulphur-containing amino acids such as cysteine and methionine".

Proteins are essential for developing the body. They are broken down into their constituent amino acids, which are then reassembled into tissues.

Lysine is an essential building block for all other proteins, and for proper muscle and bone development in children; methionine gives cells antioxidant protection; tryptophan is important for regulating sleep/wake cycles.

Adding the AmA1 gene can transform foods, Professor Datta believes. "This bit of genetic engineering can make rice as rich as milk, corn a near-perfect complete food, and the humble potato so protein- powered that it could contribute to the virtual elimination of malnutrition in developing countries," he said in 1999.

Now, the Indian government is backing him. The plan was outlined last month by Govindarajan Padmanaban, a biochemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He told New Scientist magazine that he hoped environmental groups would not oppose it. The experience of GM "golden rice" developed by scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich suggests he could be disappointed.

"Golden rice" grows with extra iron and vitamin A; the latter makes it look yellow, hence the nickname. Unveiled in 1999 by Peter Beyer, one of its inventors, it was attacked as being a Western attempt to impose its technology on less developed nations. But Professor Beyer rejects the claims, noting that the rights to the technology have been transferred to India and, importantly, that farmers are allowed to keep and sell the seeds.

That sets apart the "golden rice" project, which begins larger-scale trials in India this year, from the schemes that gave GM such a bad name in the 1990s. Then, there were two key elements about GM crops. First, the food (such as maize or Soya) produced by the crops was exactly like those made by conventional means – the GM element only mattered to farmers killing weeds or supermarkets keeping food on shelves for longer. Second, the firms that made the GM seeds controlled their sale, distribution and storage very tightly: farmers were not allowed to resell or even store more than a little, far below what they were used to working with.

The idea that companies developing GM crops wanted to control everything, including farmers' warehouses, set many people – especially in the developing world – against them. But, said Professor Padmanaban, when it came to so-called "functional foods", where GM has been used to make a difference to what you eat, "the requirements of developing countries are very different from those of rich countries. I think it would be morally indefensible to oppose [GM potatoes]."

The lack of foreign controls has led the Delhi-based Gene Campaign, which opposes patenting plants, to give the GM potato a cautious welcome. "If you're going to use GM at all, use it for this," Suman Sahai, a campaigner with the group, told New Scientist. "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."

At Greenpeace, Mr Kronick disagrees. "The cause of hunger isn't lack of food. It's lack of cash and of access to the food. Creating these GM crops is something to make them look attractive when actually the utility of eating them is very, very low. It's very difficult to see how this on its own will change the face of poverty.

"India has had 50 to 60 million tonnes surplus food production for the past decade but that hasn't done anything to improve food security." He argues for sustainable agriculture, in which food is grown to meet need, rather than cash crops being used to buy imported foods.

But progress is only slowly helping the world's poor. Even though "functional" foods were identified years ago by the Royal Society and MPs as the best application for GM technology, it will be probably five years before "golden rice" has completed trials in India. The trials for the "protato" could take even longer. A 15-year plan may sound like an unambitious timescale but GM technology is still trying to meet our appetites – and the numbers needing food keep growing.