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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
India's search for enhanced food
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent in Delhi

On the sleepy hill tops of south Delhi sits Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Indian children, BBC
Experts say malnutrition affects huge numbers of people in India
The sound of the mega-city's bustle evaporates away amid the woodlands of the campus.

Only the crickets' chirps disturb the tranquil thoughts of the academics here.

Among them are a group of Bengali scientists, husband and wife team Niranjan and Subra Chakrabarty and their leader and mentor Assis Datta.

Fifteen years ago the research team began to pursue their dream of finding a way to improve the diets of the country's poor young street children.

Six million of them are thought to be malnourished. The project was quite literally a labour of love; it was during the course of the research that Niranjan and Subra became engaged.

Imminent approval

Their idea was a simple one: take a gene from the protein-rich Amaranth plant and put it into a protein-poor potato.

They were astonished by the results. The first crop was a bumper harvest - six times the normal yield. And the protein content was up by a third and it included high-quality essential amino acids lacking in the diet of the very poorest.

But as any true scientist would, Assis, Niranjan and Subra tempered their initial excitement and waited to see if the same results could be achieved for the following crop. They were - the results were repeated year after year.

The work caught the eye of India's head of biotechnology, Manju Sharma, who saw the work's potential and gave it her personal backing.

Now she says she's "very confident" the potato will get regulatory approval in six months - and be fed to millions of poor children at state schools as part of the government's midday meal programme.

And her department is backing work to introduce the Amaranth's gene into cereals, fruits and other vegetables which she hopes will be sold widely and give the nation a nutritional boost. It's a sort of fluoridation programme.

Good food

But, of course, there are some who are appalled at the idea. Dr Devinder Sharma, an environmental campaigner, wonders why genetically enhanced potatoes are needed when one of the country's main staples, pulses, already have high protein content.

The pulses are made into the delicious Indian dish "dahl". "Why can't dahl be given away freely to poor children?" he asks.

Devinder Sharma dismisses the so-called protato as a stunt and a propaganda tool with which to promote GM to the Indian public.

So far, the main opposition to GM comes from an educated elite who fear environmental damage, loss of biodiversity and foreign control over India's food supply.

Many ordinary people though are more open-minded. Here, science is still seen as a route to prosperity and a better quality of life.

For a country with an ever increasing population, the "technical fix" GM seems to be offering is a tempting one indeed.

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

India 'to approve GM potato'
11 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
GM crops 'good for developing countries'
10 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature

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