Genetically modified foods safer and better; Another view to ‘Engineered vegetables’.
Posted on October 22nd, 2019

By Bodhi Dhanapala, Quebec, Canada

[Full version of the article that appeared in the Island, 22nd October, 2019]

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 as they don’t have food, leave aside the  choices that people like SJ have.

 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. That is how Sri Lanaka has managed to feed its population that grew exponentially since world war I.  But those unsung scientists get no benefit in selling such food., or any recognition. In fact, they are often blamed unreasonably as being in the pockets of multi-national companies.

 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 less erosion. If modern pesticides are used, no tilling is needed, cutting down erosion to a minimum and boosting harvests.

If old “goma and geri-katu” agriculture is used, together with the admonition to not to use pesticides, the harvests are open to attack from epidemics of pests. In Sri Lanka, the attack of the senaa (“army”) caterpillar recently  is a notable example. Venerable Ratana,  who champions the “Toxin-free agriculture”  claimed that he can kill them all using  “organic pesticides” if he were given the responsibility  of combating the army caterpillar.  Leave aside the ethics of  a Buddhist monk taking over such a task, such technical matters should be  the concern of  agricultural scientists. Furthermore, such pesticides, often based on Neem (“Kohomba”) have been used from time immemorial and so plants and  pests have developed resistance to them. Pests develop resistance even modern pesticides and they need to be constantly modified as organisms evolve.

 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 (parts per thousands) 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. Plants  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.  So a partial solution to the problem is crop rotation, or leaving the land fallow for a few years.

Grasses and straw accumulate toxins from the soil, and so 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 safely eaten all over the world is GM soya invented decades ago by scientists and commercialized. Canola oil produced by Canadian scientists has been, and is used safely 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 cultivars of standard varieties,  grown with adequate application of mineral fertilizers, instead of relying on the old “cow dung and geri-katu” agriculture which often does  not provide enough nutrients to crops.  Traditional  agriculture 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?

Household compost pits and urban garbage dumps emit methane, a green-house gas much worse than CO2,  adding to the environmental burden coming from organic farming.
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. Avoid excessive composting,  and instead use a mixture of mineral fertilizers and humus if needed. But be informed that genetically modified foods are as safe and often better for you (and the environment) than traditional varieties.

[The author worked as the head of the science department of a Quebec technical college, and retired recently.]

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