The Global Politics of FoodEngineering Crops in a Needy World
STORY : Engineering Crops in a Needy World
By John Biewen

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Would genetically-modified crops—or, as they’re sometimes called, ’transgenic’ crops—would they save India, or enslave it? Suman SahaiMost people active in the debate take one extreme position or the other. One exception is Suman Sahai. She’s a geneticist and the head of Gene Campaign, a non-profit group based in New Delhi.

"Unfortunately, in this debate on transgenics, there has been massive polarization for the 'for' and the 'against' people, both of whom are compromising a little bit with the truth," Sahai says.

She expresses deep concerns about the possible environmental effects of engineered crops—and the patenting that goes with them. She wants Indian lawmakers to reject the Western notion that intellectual property rights can apply to seeds. At the same time Sahai argues that some opponents exaggerate the dangers of genetic engineering and too quickly dismiss its potential.

"Sometimes it seems that this debate is taking place in some ethereal kind of area where real people, real hunger, real starvation, is not visible," Sahai says. "If it is a technology that can give me something, and if it is a technology that is safe, there is no earthly reason for me not to accept it."

Most commercial GM crops now on the market are designed mainly for the benefit of more affluent Western farmers, Sahai argues.

But plant geneticists are at work in university, government, and non-profit labs around the world creating GM crops specifically for subsistence farmers, with traits like improved nutrition. The best known is "golden rice." Swiss scientists engineered the rice to contain beta-carotene, which the human body turns into vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency causes death and blindness in hundreds of thousands of Asian children every year—half of them in India. With help from a London-based biotech corporation, AstraZeneca, the inventors hope to give golden rice to poor Asian farmers.


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