Genetically modified foods safer and better

Another reply to ‘Engineered vegetables’


Quebec, Canada

A reader named "Vegetarian" (The Island 15th Oct.) had written asking if outsized vegetables are some type of "engineered" vegetables? Jayantha Samarasinghe (JS) has replied (21st October), alluding to a science fiction story by Arthur Clarke to argue that it is best to NOT eat such "engineered vegetables".

 JS advises that "this story demonstrates how a subtle difference can trigger a serious problem". Clarke's story is not based on a subtle difference, but a huge difference, as big as the left foot not fitting into the right shoe. SJ says, "...there was a plan to set up a lab in Sri Lanka to detect genetically engineered food imports… scuttled by people who benefit in selling such food". 

SJ's advise that we must avoid engineered food and eat "natural food", is as fictional as the Arthur Clarke story. SJ is also equally wrong when he implies that genetically modified (GM) food has been produced by people (scientists) who benefit by selling such food, and that it is worse in every sense (including nutritionally, i.e. compared to "natural food".

 Certainly, if SJ can do it, eating his home grown food is an excellent idea. However, it is not practicable to feed the 22 million population in Sri Lanka, or the seven billion globally. SJ may have a choice of foods, but many can only sleep hungry.

 If we use the "traditional" varieties of rice used decades ago, grown according to traditional methods (e.g. "organic farming"), it yields 1.1-1.5 metric tonnes of paddy/hectare, and giving two harvests (Yala and Maha). Modern hybrids, developed by scientists at Batalagoda, Kundasale and other research stations, produce yields like 6 to 10 metric tonnes per hectare. But those unsung scientists get no benefit in selling such food. Modern varieties use less water and yield harvests in shorter time - e.g. in three months. So, to produce one kilo of rice takes less water, less land, less tilling and erosion. If modern pesticides are used, no tilling is needed, cutting down erosion to a minimum and boosting harvest.

 The claim that there are harmful amounts of pesticide residues on vegetables is a canard spread by the Organic Food lobby. Sensitive chemical analyzes show, say, 10-100 parts per billion of Roundup or some such pesticide on cabbage. This is potentially harmful if you eat about 200 kilos of cabbage daily. If SJ were to test the vegetables grown in his garden, he will find much larger amounts of noxious chemicals in his vegetables, coming from the motor vehicular traffic on the busy roads in "Mahanuwara", and from the dust laden acid rain that falls on his vegetables, even if he lives far away from any traffic!

 There is a phenomenon known as "bio-accumulation" of toxins in plants. They take up toxins from the ground and concentrate them hundreds of times. So, if the same plant material is composted again and again, higher and higher levels of toxins accumulate in the soil. In the old days, people moved to a different "chena" and continued their cultivation. But today people don't have the luxury of moving from the "Parana-hena" to the "Aluth-hena" periodically, to grow one's crops. Grass accumulates toxins from the soil, and cow-dung is richer in toxins than the soil. The soil naturally contains small amounts of cadmium, lead, arsenic and other noxious elements. These come to the soil from naturally occurring minerals, from urban waste like discarded batteries, electronic parts, paints, vehicle exhaust, burning of plastic, car-repair garages etc.

 Most of the soya bean eaten all over the world is GM soya from decades ago. Canola oil produced by Canadian scientists has been used all over the world for decades. Genetic engineering is simply plant breeding equipped with the information about the genetic code available from DNA analysis of the plant genome. In the old days, before DNA, people used hit and run hybridization, and so it took long years by farmers to develop useful varieties. Even the traditional varieties such as "heenati", "nilnaadu" etc., are NOT natural varieties. The natural varieties are grass-like wild rices, which are the actual ancestors of traditional rices. The same story goes for fruits and vegetables.

 The larger-sized vegetables that I have seen in markets are simply standard varieties, but grown with adequate application of mineral fertilizers, instead of relying on the old "cow dung and geri-katu" agriculture, which takes up a lot of land, water, digging-tilling causing erosion.  Organic farmers do not usually analyze their soils for N, P, K etc. or toxins. Essential minerals may be lacking in their soil. The scientifically farmed vegetables are more fully grown and can be large if they are from "larger-size" cultivars.

 There are self-styled "patriots" and "heroes" who agitate against "multinationals" claiming that agri-businesses seek profits. Companies need profits to survive. These activists claim to "save the environment" by agitating against the "pollution" coming from agrochemicals. The overuse of agro-chemicals is simply a consequence of the uncontrolled "free-market" introduced by politicians, and not intrinsic to agrochemicals, which are as necessary as the vitamins and drugs that most people need. Most soils get depleted of their N, P and other minerals on repeated farming, and hence adding the right amount of fertilizer, organic or mineral, is essential to good farming practice. A ton of organic fertilizer may be necessary for what is done with just one kilo of mineral fertilizer.

 The self-styled "green heroes" agitating against GM foods have caused enormous harm and retarded progress. They are mostly driven by unreasoned and unsubstantiated fear. They fear that GM is toxic, and that GM-product companies will control the farmers by controlling GM seed supplies. That surely is a matter of legislation and not science. Do we stop the imports of cars or pharmaceuticals, saying that car companies or big-pharma can control our destinies? 

 An excellent example of a false prophet causing much damage to South Asians is "Shiva Vandana". She campaigned against golden rice in India.   Most early-blindness cases in Asia are due to lack of Vitamin A in the diet. Carrots contain carotene – a source of Vitamin A. Most Asians eat rice, but little of carotene containing foods. So, a simple solution is to hybridize rice with carrots. This cannot be done by plant hybridization. But it is very simple to take the relevant carrot gene and add it to the rice DNA, giving a new golden coloured, known now as "golden rice". Although golden rice was produced by scientists decades ago, opposition to GM foods by the likes of Shiva Vandana has prevented its release in India. Health officials estimate that millions of people could have been spared of blindness if this rice had been licensed. The anti-GM protesters have spread fear among the public and lobbied politicians (who are equally ignorant of genetics). People fear what they do not understand, and especially when it is claimed that GM is a tool of subjugation of poor nations by global conglomerates.  However, the most recent news is that the Indian government is - after decades of delay - set to approve the sale of golden rice.  

 The bottom line is, please cultivate your garden if you can, but avoid using urban waste and even household waste, unless you are sure that it is free of contaminants, road-side pollution etc. But be informed that genetically modified foods are as safe and often better for you (and the environment) than traditional varieties.

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