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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
India 'to approve GM potato'
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent in Delhi

Indian children, BBC
Experts say malnutrition affects huge numbers of people in India
The commercial growing of a genetically modified potato which contains nutrients lacking in the diets of many of the poorest is expected to be approved in India within six months.

The influential head of the Indian Government's Department of Biotechnology, Dr Manju Sharma, said the potato would be given free to millions of poor children at government schools to try to reduce the problem of malnutrition in the country.

The potato contains a third more protein than normal, including essential high-quality nutrients, and has been created by adding a gene from the protein-rich amaranth plant.

But critics describe the plan as risky, naive and a propaganda tool to promote the merits of GM food in India.

'Technology for the future'

The "protato", as it has become known, is in its final stages of regulatory approval which Dr Sharma said she was very confident of getting.

What this country needs...is pulses. The pulses contain 20-26% proteins... this potato has 2.5% protein. Please tell me which one is better
Dr Devinder Sharma
She plans to incorporate it into the government's free midday meal programme in schools.

"There has been a serious concern that malnutrition is one of the reasons for the blindness, the vitamin A deficiency, the protein deficiency," Dr Sharma told the BBC.

"So it is really a very important global concern, particularly in the developing world," she added.

One of India's leading industrialists in biotechnology, Dr Balvinder Singh Khalsi, chief executive of Dupont, said the project had enormous potential for the country.

"We see this as a technology for the future, because the real need for India is to feed its growing population. This technology is really going to the benefit of improving the yields, better quality food, larger quantity," Dr Khalsi said.

He pointed to last year's controversial introduction of GM cotton, known as Bt cotton, saying that "the Bt craze has caught up" with Indian farmers very quickly.

"Once [GM technology] is introduced into other crops, and the people start seeing the values of it, we believe the technology will be accepted by the farmers and the growing population," Dr Khalsi said.

'No sense'

But critics such as Dr Devinder Sharma dismiss the potato project as a mere propaganda campaign to promote GM food in India.

Potato, BBC
The "protato" could be a cheap source of protein
"What this country needs and which it has in abundance is pulses. Now the pulses contain 20-26% proteins. This potato they talk about has 2.5% protein. Please tell me which one is better," he says.

Some environmental campaigners also say biotechnology companies may have overstated the case for GM crops.

"The potential for the technology has to be assessed in terms of what is being offered and are there alternatives?" environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva says.

"If it's the only way to get to a certain place, then sure. But if I can control weeds by doing mixed farming... it makes no sense to permanently introduce genes, to introduce toxins into my biodiversity, allow contamination of related crops," Mrs Shiva says.

The team that created the "protato" says it now plans to use genetic engineering to develop cereals, fruits and other vegetables rich in protein.

It hopes this new generation of crops will sell the benefits of GM to a wary public.

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"The potato contains a third more protein than normal"

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26 Jul 02  |  Science/Nature

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