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TWEAKING NATURE: Scientific tampering of crops to overcome global hunger may be creating more problems than solutions
YOU'LL probably have heard how the industrialisation of crops will solve the world's hunger. Industrialisation means the modification of nature, insect resistant crops, genetically modified and patented seeds that you can only buy from authorised retailers. But first let's go bananas.
To those of you who have been accusing me of writing a boring column, thank you, but I am about to change now: I am going to introduce sex into the story. The banana, apparently, has not had sex for 10,000 years and that's very worrying for some people.
One of them is Emile Frison, an Amish looking plant pathologist with an alarming message for you goreng pisang lovers. The banana, says Frison -- and he has been saying this for at least eight years, will soon vanish if you don't take steps now (remember it was twelve years ago when he started) to introduce a foreign gene into it, or poke it with needles and do things that plant scientists do when they get the urge to GMO.
The banana, you see, doesn't have seeds, so it is not able to tango with another and produce a child. In fact, most banana trees (oh, all right then, the banana is a herb) have been producing from those original trees that have been with us for 10 thousand years. Ten thousand years is a long time to be standing around but with its DNA frozen it may not be able to resist the diseases and the fungi and all the blights that have emerged in these 10 centuries. And so it is that Frison has been telling a tale of the banana doom for the last 10 or so years.
Indeed, he is exasperated by all those banana purists who oppose scientific tampering with our fruit, you know, environmentalists, traditionalists, impoverished farmers and the usual anti-Monsanto crowd. Why, Frison himself has inserted a gene from rice into the banana to make his fungus resistant but woe betide all those Kenyans and Somalis and all those other banana lovers who refuse to tamper with this fruit that went to the head of Carmen Miranda.
Benchamas Silayoi is a scientist at the Faculty of Agriculture of the Kasetsart University in Thailand. Stories have been floating around that the banana will be extinct in 10 years, but 10 years have passed and we're still not quite in a banana famine now. Bananas going extinct? "Only big bombs can do that," Mrs Silayoi was quoted as saying to people who took their anxieties to her.
Now, here's another interesting take on the frisson of concern as came from Dr Frison of the International Plant Resource Institute where he is Director General. In January 2003, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) said that the banana’s vulnerability to disease was aggravated by the commercial overuse of the Cavendish variety (pisang serendah).
What banana growers needed to combat the threat of disease was greater genetic diversity, not more tampering with the fruit. The resilience of the fruit by better management — not genetic modification — has been amply demonstrated by the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research (FHIA). They have demonstrated for instance, that the sexless banana can be induced to produce seeds by hand-pollination.
Thanks to the fruits of FHIA research, Cuba has been able to overcome banana plant disease with a conventionally bred, disease-resistant variety. It is a big battle certainly between conventional and GM variety because at the heart of it all is something that the poor can ill afford — money.
In India, farmers take their own lives because of mounting debts caused by crop failure, crops that have been engineered with genes of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to make them insect resistant.
This modification made the crop rain-sensitive and less resistant to drought situations than the conventional variety. Similarly, the introduction of Bt brinjals brought unforeseen problems.
Contrary to claims made by breeders, the modified plants cross-pollinated wild, weedy relatives, producing perhaps a problem weed.
This cross-pollination also threatens farmer’s rights to grow uncontaminated crop on their own soil.
As a report in The Hindu on April 20 last year said: “There are many concerns with GE (genetically enhanced) brinjal, which has been engineered to be resistant to certain insect pests using Bt genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These concerns include food safety and possible effects on organisms other than the pest insect (non-target organisms), such as beneficial insects and butterflies.”
There are many concerns that come on the ship of corporatisation for our world. Variety of species is at stake, control of farmers over their crop is another. And there are big voices that control the direction of the debate at the expense of traditional, time-tested ways that do not rake in big money.
Similar promises have been made about the sweet potato in Africa, but their failure have hardly made news even on a news-starved day.
They may modify their crops much as they like but we have the right to know.