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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 00:32 GMT
GM potato 'could improve child health'
potato
A GM potato could be a cheap source of protein
A protein-rich genetically modified potato could help combat malnutrition in India, scientists say.

Its developers say the "protato" could help tackle nutrition problems amongst the country's poorest children.

They say it could play an important part in the Indian government's 15 year health improvement plan to provide clean water, better food and vaccines.

The GM potato has been developed by scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, New Scientist magazine reports.

If you're going to use GM at all, use it for this

Suman Sahai, Gene Campaign
A gene called AmA1 was added to ordinary potatoes giving them a third more protein than normal, including substantial amounts of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine.

A lack of these can affect children. For example, too little lysine can affect brain development.

AmA1 comes from the amaranth plant which grows in South America. The plant can be bought in some western health food stores.

The potato is in the final stages of testing, and it has been submitted for official approval.

No pesticide

It is not the first protein-rich GM product to be developed.

Lysine-enriched strains of maize have already been produced.

It would be morally indefensible to oppose it.

Govindarajan Padmanaban, Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore
Bread and wheat flour can also be enriched naturally by adding peanut flour.

It is hoped that the GM potato's nutritional benefits will help it win approval in India, where environmentalists have been concerned about a decision to allow production of a GM cotton.

Govindarajan Padmanaban, a biochemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, outlined details of the potato to a meeting of the Royal Society in London last year.

He said: "The potato doesn't contain a pesticide gene," says Padmanaban.

"It's a gene that improves nutrition, and it's from another plant that is already eaten. Moreover, it's not a known allergen."

Dr Padmanaban said he hoped Western-based environmental groups and charities would not criticise the potato as they did a "golden rice" developed by AstraZeneca's to make more vitamin A.

"The requirements of developing countries are very different from those of rich countries. I think it would be morally indefensible to oppose it."

Cheap

But campaigners say the potato should only be approved if passes safety and environmental tests and if the extra protein is digestible.

Siddharth Deva, Oxfam's policy adviser for south Asia, called for independent assessments of the effect of GM crops, such as the potato.

He said: "We want to ensure that introductions of GM crops don't have harmful implications."

Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based sustainable development group opposed to the patenting of plants.

But it says the GM potato is a better use of the technology than creating weedkiller-resistant crops.

She said: "If you're going to use GM at all, use it for this.

"India's problem is that we're vegetarian, so pulses and legumes are the main protein source, but they're in short supply and expensive. The potato is good because it's cheap."

Pete Riley, GM spokesman for Friends of the Earth, told BBC News Online: "Any GM food that's put on the market, in India or any other country, needs to have gone through the proper safety checks.

"We need to have a system in place that makes sure that even a crop which on paper might bring long-term benefits is not going to have any unforeseen consequences."

See also:

04 Sep 02 | Health
01 Aug 02 | Health
02 Apr 02 | South Asia
14 Nov 02 | Africa
27 Mar 02 | Business
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