Sunday, June 15, 2003

The Protato (amaranth protein genes spliced into a potato) is one of those issues that have the precautionary principle proponents up in arms. I've been looking around for some facts, and some commentary.

The Facts:

  • The Protato was invented in New Delhi by Indian scientists working for the government.

  • It was created by inserting one gene from the amaranth plant, another native American plant.

  • This food might be given poor children as part of the government's free midday meal program for schoolchildren.

  • It contains substantially more lysine. A lack of lysine can affect brain development.

The Commentary:

  • Biochemist Govindarajan Padmanaban... hopes Western-based environmental groups and charities will not demonise the project in the same way as they did AstraZeneca's golden rice. "I think it would be morally indefensible to oppose it." (GENET)

  • "Padmanaban who as director of India's prestigious Indian Institute of Science had signed a secret deal with Monsanto which even his fellow scientists of the Institute knew nothing about. ... genetically engineered potatoes will in fact create malnutrition because they will deny to vulnerable children the other nutrients available in grain amaranth and not available in potato. ... India is nutritionally better off without the pseudo solution to hunger offered by Datta & Padmanaban and the biotech lobby." (Hartmut Meyer on GENET)

  • Greenpeace: "Years were spent in a lab trying to lever protein into potatoes, while cheap, protein-rich pulses grow abundantly all over India" (via Guardian. Devinder Sharma said the same thing: "What this country needs is pulses. They contain 20%-26% proteins..." [So what if cheap, protein-rich pulses grow all over India? They are either not cheap enough, not protein-rich enough, or not well-enough distributed, or else there wouldn't be a malnutrition problem.]

  • Sharma again: "[India] is saddled with over 50 million tones of wheat and rice whereas some 320 million people go to bed empty stomach". [And the relevance is... ? How is this an argument against a protein-enriched potato?]

  • Guardian: "New Delhi ... is also believed to have one eye on the £116bn global potato market." [That seems like a good thing to me. Why shouldn't India export potatos on the world market? That trade will benefit both India and the purchasers of the protato and may eventually pay for its development.]

  • Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign ... says the team's goal is far more worthy than, say, creating crops resistant to a company's own weedkiller. "If you're going to use GM at all, use it for this," she says. "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." (GENET).
  • "since regular potatoes have very low protein, 30% more is still very low protein. 30% per cent more of not much is still not much." (Metafilter)
OK, first there are the economic issues that the commentators tend to ignore. There is malnutrition. The existing food distribution system is not solving the problems of these starving people. The existence of pulses that would be even better for their diet is not a reason to argue against a lesser improvement as long as it is still an improvement. Arguing that people who are malnourished should simply diversify their diets is irresponsible stupidity. These people wouldn't be malnourished if they had the ability to diversify their diets. And as Suhai pointed out, it can be hard to get enough protein in vegetarian diets. The potato is not only cheap it's also easy to keep and cook.

We've already tried various "natural" schemes to get extra protein to malnourished children. "None of the various schemes to provide such [protein-enhanced with peanut flour] bread to malnourished children since the 1960s has survived." (GENET).

Next point seems to be that this GM food is unnatural and constitutes a change -- and according to the precautionary principal change is always bad. Don't forget, the potato is not itself indigenous to India, or for that matter, Europe. It came from America. That importation caused a much larger change in agriculture, diet and the environment than the importation of a foreign gene into the potato genome.

Is 30% more than not much still not much? The potato arrived in Ireland a few hundred years ago and became popular in time to feed a growing and impoverished Irish population. Irish families subsisted on the outcome of their hand-tilled potato fields and nearly nothing else. While this wasn't a very balanced diet it did allow survival. Potatos with even a little extra protein and amino acids ought to be even better as a subsistence diet for the extremely poor.

Update: Found another link with some sensible commentary: "The nutritional value of potato proteins is high because its amino acid composition is balanced, containing the right amounts of lysine and methionine. It is not clear that the increased essential amino acid content is the result of the increased protein content or not."

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