Saturday, 9 July 2011

Transgenic wheat: And now groundnut with the qualities of tomato and rice

Syed Akbar


Hyderabad: Imagine eating groundnut with the qualities of tomato and rice, and toor dal that has the traits of maize! As Hyderabad joins the race of genetically engineered food crops, moongphali will soon carry
the goodness of tamatar and rice, while toor dal gets boosted by the nutritional value of bhutta or corn. And chana dal crop will emerge victorious fighting  severe drought conditions. Cases of food poisoning
due to aflatoxins will also come down.
Though scientists tinkering with genes is not new, what's important about these transgenic varieties is that a public-funded research organisation - International Crops Research Institute in Semi-Arid Tropics - is developing them for the first time in India. This brings to an end the monopoly now largely enjoyed by multinational seed companies. Since government money is involved in the research, farmers do not have any restrictions on the use of these products. The GM seeds will be available at affordable rates and farmers can procure them at any time.
Much of the opposition to the GM crops in India is due to the monopoly of private companies, which make it sure that farmers are always at their mercy - for seeds year after year. The pricing policy by private GM companies is also to the disadvantage of the poor and the marginal ryots in the country. There have been several complaints against these companies by farmers and civil rights activists in the last 10 years over GM cotton, which is the only genetically engineered crop so far introduced for commercial use in India.
"Since it is being taken up by a public funded body, the focus is more on achieving sustainable food production in semi-arid tropics and to improve the lives of the poor by making major food crops more
productive, nutritious and affordable," argues Dr Kiran K Sharma, who heads the transgenic research in ICRISAT.
Though ICRISAT's transgenic seeds help the farmers by their high quality technology and economical prices, the concerns of bio-safety of these genetically modified crops however remains. ICRISAT's claims
of "following rigorous safety assessment processes" notwithstanding any human interference in the natural genetic set-up of a plant or animal may prove to be counterproductive. Though the inserted gene may improve the quality of the crop, scientists do not know whether it will be harmful to human beings or animals. A recent Indian study has found that genetic engineering is detrimental to the health of the plant.
Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, head of research at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, is sceptical about the claims of the scientists on the safety of the GM foods. "The fear of terminator
or suicide seed always lingers on in our minds," he points out.
ICRISAT's director-general Dr William Dar, however clarifies that although genetically modification technology is not a substitute for conventional breeding, it provides a means of speeding up the process
by enhancing the existing germplasm. We are using modern technology to alleviate poverty. There are one billion poor and hungry people today. As the earth's population goes up to 9.25 billion in the next 40 
years, we need to increase food productivity by as much as 75 per cent to meet the demand. We need to tap the power of GE technology," he said.
While pro- and anti-GM groups accuse each other of "over reaction", the good thing about ICRISAT's transgenic crops is that they are developed under the watchful eyes of the government, universities, and
premier research bodies like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and the Department of Biotechnology. Amidst checks and counter checks by these public organisations, there's little likelihood of
misuse of the transgenic technology.
Meanwhile, transgenic groundnut, chana (chickpea) and toor dal (pigeonpea) are at various stages of development in Icrisat's biotech laboratory. Once they pass the laboratory tests, these grains will be subjected to safety studies, before they are released for commercial use, Dr Kiran Sharma said.
ICRISAT's objective behind adding a gene from tomato to groundnut is to enhance the content of pro-vitamin A, technically called Beta carotene. Groundnut does not contain much of vitamin A, which is
required to keep various body functions in good condition. Deficiency in vitamin A leads to night blindness. Pigeonpea's nutritional value will be enhanced by adding the good traits of maize.
"This will improve the nutritional status of the poor, including women and children," adds Dr Clive James of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, New Delhi.
Besides adding Beta carotene to groundnut and pigeonpea, scientists at ICRISAT are developing insect resistant varieties. "Efforts are on to develop insect resistant chickpea and pigeonpea by incorporating the
genes conferring insecticidal traits, including those derived from bacillus thuringiensis or Bt," he said.
The new transgenic groundnut will also be resistant to major viruses including tobacco streak virus, peanut bud necrosis virus, the Indian peanut clump virus and the groundnut rosette assistor virus for which
groundnut germplasm does not contain durable resistance.
These transgenic events are in advanced generations and have been evaluated in a series of dry-down trials under greenhouse and contained field conditions. Some of them consistently showed significantly
higher yield and harvest index under intermittent drought stress.
The new groundnut variety will be free of contamination with aflatoxin. It will get a gene from rice which will help in reducing the pre-harvest infection of A flavus and aflatoxin content.
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* Genetically modified crop in India is 10 years old. Bt Cotton was first introduced for commercial use in 2001. A decade later opinions are divided on the safety or otherwise of genetically engineered cotton.
* Bt brinjal was developed in the country during 2009, making it the first GM food crop in India. Before it was launched for commercial production, the Central government withheld the permission. Another
GM food crop to be developed in the country is lady's finger or bhendi. Trials are going on and depending on the success of Bt brinjal, Bt bhendi will be released into the market.
* In a GM crop, a gene from another plant or animal is introduced to give it the trait or traits it does not possess. Tomato for instance is rich in pro-vitamin A or Beta carotene. Groundnut does not contain much of this vitamin. If a gene that produces Beta carotene in tomato is introduced in groundnut, the new groundnut crop will have more beta carotene, which is good for eyes.
* GM crops are wrought with danger. For instance, there's likelihood of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods. Transgenes may escape from cultivated crops into wild relatives, thereby upsetting the bio-diversity.
*Pests may develop resistance to GM crops and may emerge even more dangerous making even powerful pesticides ineffective.
* The good side is that GM crops improve productivity, give resistance to pests and improve the nutritional value of food. A single food may serve many purposes like golden rice providing vitamin A and iron.


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