Bending it unlike Beckham

Devinder Sharma asks how can a ‘protein-rich’ potato really stop malnourishment in India.

Devinder Sharma | December 2003 issue

I was taken by surprise. The BBC Radio presenter, who had been busy talking about football star David Beckham, suddenly shifted to genetically modified potatoes, and told his listeners that he had a food-policy analyst on the line from New Delhi. Before I could respond to his greetings he bowled the first googly: ‘When will you stop treating the multinational corporations as wicked?‘

Knowing that it was a live and a popular breakfast programme, I had little time to react. ‘As far as I am concerned, I would stop treating them as wicked the day they stop acting wickedly.’

While I was still drawing the link between multinational corporations and the GM potato being researched in India, the commentator asked: ‘Why are you opposed to this GM potato, which is reported to contain 40% more proteins, and could be the answer to India’s mounting problem of malnutrition?’

‘Who gave you these fake protein figures?’ I demanded, explaining, ‘The GM potato that is under research contains not more than 28% protein, a mere increase of 0.6 to 0.8% protein than what exists in the normal potatoes.’

Well, this is what has been claimed by, Manju Sharma, the Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, he quipped, adding, ‘But don’t you think that even a little increase in proteins would help?’

‘What a shame. Those who talk of addressing the acute malnutrition crisis by feeding GM potatoes containing 2.8% more proteins must be living in a fool’s paradise,’ I reacted angrily. ‘If they are really sincere in fighting malnutrition, they should ensure that the 50 million tons of food grains that are rotting in the open are first fed to the hungry. And before you ask me why, let me tell you that over 25 million tons of the rotting food that is wheat, which contains four times as much protein than potatoes.’

A couple more questions and the interview ended. The BBC presenter turned back to more juicy stuff on Beckham, his interest in India’s hunger and malnutrition being as superficial as that of the biotechnologists.

In these heady days of genetic engineering, when all kinds of permutations and combinations are being ruthlessly tried out by a new breed of biotechnologist, and with the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry waiting for a miracle to rescue its flagging reputation, protato – as the GM potato is called – is being promoted as the magic bullet. Scientists are giving the impression that they finally have the technological remedy to fight the scourge of mankind – silent hunger.

‘Hidden hunger’ or ‘silent hunger’ as it is also called, is the new buzzword in the scientific echelons. Thirty years after the advent of the green revolution in technology, scientists are rediscovering the importance of nutritional security for the masses. The desperation is not, however, aimed at addressing the problems of ‘hidden hunger’, but rather at forging public acceptance of the controversial science and technology of genetic engineering. Such is the haste to promote the faulty technologies that Mrs. Sharma has even gone to extent of saying that she would push for protato to be included in the midday meal programme for schoolchildren.

But potatoes would sprout before they could reach the schoolchildren. And wheat, which is lying stacked under sun, contains more protein and does not have any of the harmful side-effects associated with GM foods.

Of course, it would make terrible economic sense if the biotechnologists were for once to forget the ‘novel’ foods being prepared and instead urge the government to speed up food distribution among the hungry masses. After all, the bulk of the surplus food grains that lie stocked in the open have already turned into cattle feed.

But how then will the ‘protein-rich’ potato help solve malnutrition in the country? How will the country’s nutritional security be addressed?

Biotechnology cannot be left in the hands of trigger-happy scientists who are excited at the use and abuse of something called the gene gun. Like trigger-happy terrorists, biotechnologists continue to blast alien genes into any crop they lay their hands upon without realising the futility of such an exercise.

Learn to bend it like Beckham.

Adapted with permission from Third World Resurgence (May/June 2003), a bimonthly publication of the Third World Network, which works for fair and sustainable development in developing countries. The Malaysia-based magazine, writes critical reports on Western aid and international politics. For subscription information: Third World Network, Subscriptions & Marketing, 121-S Jalan Utama, 10450 Penang, Malaysia, twnet@po.jaring.my, www.twnside.org.sg/twr.htm.

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Bending it unlike Beckham

Devinder Sharma asks how can a ‘protein-rich’ potato really stop malnourishment in India.

Devinder Sharma | December 2003 issue

I was taken by surprise. The BBC Radio presenter, who had been busy talking about football star David Beckham, suddenly shifted to genetically modified potatoes, and told his listeners that he had a food-policy analyst on the line from New Delhi. Before I could respond to his greetings he bowled the first googly: ‘When will you stop treating the multinational corporations as wicked?‘

Knowing that it was a live and a popular breakfast programme, I had little time to react. ‘As far as I am concerned, I would stop treating them as wicked the day they stop acting wickedly.’

While I was still drawing the link between multinational corporations and the GM potato being researched in India, the commentator asked: ‘Why are you opposed to this GM potato, which is reported to contain 40% more proteins, and could be the answer to India’s mounting problem of malnutrition?’

‘Who gave you these fake protein figures?’ I demanded, explaining, ‘The GM potato that is under research contains not more than 28% protein, a mere increase of 0.6 to 0.8% protein than what exists in the normal potatoes.’

Well, this is what has been claimed by, Manju Sharma, the Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, he quipped, adding, ‘But don’t you think that even a little increase in proteins would help?’

‘What a shame. Those who talk of addressing the acute malnutrition crisis by feeding GM potatoes containing 2.8% more proteins must be living in a fool’s paradise,’ I reacted angrily. ‘If they are really sincere in fighting malnutrition, they should ensure that the 50 million tons of food grains that are rotting in the open are first fed to the hungry. And before you ask me why, let me tell you that over 25 million tons of the rotting food that is wheat, which contains four times as much protein than potatoes.’

A couple more questions and the interview ended. The BBC presenter turned back to more juicy stuff on Beckham, his interest in India’s hunger and malnutrition being as superficial as that of the biotechnologists.

In these heady days of genetic engineering, when all kinds of permutations and combinations are being ruthlessly tried out by a new breed of biotechnologist, and with the multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry waiting for a miracle to rescue its flagging reputation, protato – as the GM potato is called – is being promoted as the magic bullet. Scientists are giving the impression that they finally have the technological remedy to fight the scourge of mankind – silent hunger.

‘Hidden hunger’ or ‘silent hunger’ as it is also called, is the new buzzword in the scientific echelons. Thirty years after the advent of the green revolution in technology, scientists are rediscovering the importance of nutritional security for the masses. The desperation is not, however, aimed at addressing the problems of ‘hidden hunger’, but rather at forging public acceptance of the controversial science and technology of genetic engineering. Such is the haste to promote the faulty technologies that Mrs. Sharma has even gone to extent of saying that she would push for protato to be included in the midday meal programme for schoolchildren.

But potatoes would sprout before they could reach the schoolchildren. And wheat, which is lying stacked under sun, contains more protein and does not have any of the harmful side-effects associated with GM foods.

Of course, it would make terrible economic sense if the biotechnologists were for once to forget the ‘novel’ foods being prepared and instead urge the government to speed up food distribution among the hungry masses. After all, the bulk of the surplus food grains that lie stocked in the open have already turned into cattle feed.

But how then will the ‘protein-rich’ potato help solve malnutrition in the country? How will the country’s nutritional security be addressed?

Biotechnology cannot be left in the hands of trigger-happy scientists who are excited at the use and abuse of something called the gene gun. Like trigger-happy terrorists, biotechnologists continue to blast alien genes into any crop they lay their hands upon without realising the futility of such an exercise.

Learn to bend it like Beckham.

Adapted with permission from Third World Resurgence (May/June 2003), a bimonthly publication of the Third World Network, which works for fair and sustainable development in developing countries. The Malaysia-based magazine, writes critical reports on Western aid and international politics. For subscription information: Third World Network, Subscriptions & Marketing, 121-S Jalan Utama, 10450 Penang, Malaysia, twnet@po.jaring.my, www.twnside.org.sg/twr.htm.

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