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

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Another non-corporate scientist is C.S. Prakash, a 43-year-old Bangalore native now based in Alabama. Prakash is a compact and intense man with a mustache and wire-rim glasses. In his modest lab at historically black Tuskegee University, Prakash picks up a petri dish and points to the small glutinous blob lying in the middle of the dish. It's embryonic tissue that will soon turn into a sweet potato plant.

C.S. Prakash"We have completely focused on this crop for the last ten or so years in our research," he says. "It's a crop of tremendous importance to developing countries."

Millions of subsistence farmers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of India rely on sweet potatoes as a staple. But for children who eat little else, sweet potatoes don't provide enough protein. "That's one of the reasons why…when you see a child from Africa, a 15-year-old child will look like an 8-year-old American child, because they simply lack these essential, vital nutrients in their diet," Prakash says.

Borrowing an artificial gene developed by a colleague—one that mimics protein-building genes in other crops like corn—Prakash introduced the gene into sweet potatoes and got a result beyond his expectations: a sweet potato with five times the usual protein content. He hopes that with help from governments or philanthropists, he'll be able to give his seeds to subsistence farmers in places like Africa and Vietnam within a few years.

GM sweet potatoes could not trap poor farmers in debt or dependency, Prakash says. Potatoes are self-germinating, so farmers given the seeds would never have to buy them again, from a corporation or anyone else. But the opposition's blanket condemnation of GM crops may well stop Prakash and other non-corporate scientists from ever getting their seeds to farmers.

"It's been a very startling experience," Prakash says, to find himself and his colleagues attacked as a "mad scientists run amok" and their inventions labeled "Frankenfood." It's because of his conviction that such charges are "grossly unjust," he says, that Prakash has emerged as an outspoken advocate for GM crops.

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