Genetic engineering has created new possibilities in the agriculture sector. By transferring genes from one organism to another, a number of genetically engineered (GE) foods are being developed that cannot be developed in nature. The development of such GE foods has raised uncomfortable questions about the nature of foods that are being introduced into the food chain by the corporations that are the principal proponents of genetically engineered products.
The food that people eat is conditioned by the religious, social and cultural context of individuals and communities. Food is also such a personal thing and so integral to the survival of the human species that there are strong likes and dislikes associated with it and strong cultural taboos are not uncommon in communities. Vegetarians will not eat meat in any form, and Hindus, for instance, consider the eating of beef a sacrilege. With new technologies, however, scientists are producing a range of strange, unnatural foods that blur the conventional distinctions that people have made - like fish with tomato genes in it or rice engineered to produce pig vaccines. Many foods are being engineered with human genes ... is that acceptable, or does it recall cannibalism? Do vegetarians want aloo tamatar ki sabzi with some fish genes in it? Or how about some fish ketchup on pakoras? What if the rice in your thali is contaminated with rice that is engineered to produce pig vaccines?
This problem is particularly troubling because it is impossible to segregate rice with pig vaccines from normal rice, or food corn from corn engineered to produce drugs for pigs. Past experience has shown that these kinds of engineered crops cannot be kept segregated and will almost always land up in the food chain. The Starlink Corn in the US containing an allergen was forbidden for human use and was released only for animal feed. But it got mixed up in food corn and landed up in corn products in Japan, UK, Canada and other countries in Europe. The unlicensed GE rice of Bayer has escaped from trial plots which were closed down as far back as 2001 in the US and is being detected in countries in Europe and in New Zealand now, in 2006. Similarly, unapproved GE rice from trial plots in China has found its way into the food chain and is showing up in Europe.
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The question of 'unnatural' foods and 'taboo' foods is a sensitive issue. People have strong cultural and religious conditioning and beliefs regarding the food they are willing to eat. Introducing foods containing genes from sources that are culturally or religiously prohibited, and that too without clearly labelling them as such, is unethical and unacceptable. Corporations are alert to this stance, and continuously lobby against any kind of labeling that might give away the true origins of the foods they sell.
Apart from this, is the question of safety. You have become familiar with Bt cotton and the problems associated with it, leading to acute farmer distress. Bt cotton is a genetically engineered plant designed to make the crop resistant to pests such as the bollworm. The seeds are created by inserting a gene construct containing the toxin producing gene (called Cry1Ac) from a naturally occurring soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the cotton plant. Once the Bt gene starts producing the toxin inside the plant, the plant creates its own toxin to kill the pests. In India trials for Bt brinjal, Bt bhindi, Bt tomato, Bt cauliflower, Bt cabbage and Bt rice are under way. Do we want to eat foods that contain genes that produce toxins?
Radically altered foods, developed so recently and with so little testing, cannot be considered safe as food. Natural foods have been domesticated over hundreds, if not thousands of years. Their drawbacks have been detected and their safety established. They are considered safe foods for that reason. That cannot be said for genetically engineered foods which are not even 10 years old.
A little of this, a little of that
Here are some examples of foods that are currently being researched, and may one day turn up on our plates:
Pig genes in rice: Three kinds of pig genes are being put into the rice plant Nihonbare in Japan.These rice plants manage to survive the application of plant killing herbicides.
Human genes in rice: Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which can break down harmful chemicals in the body. An American company called Applied Phytologics is producing rice genetically engineered with two human genes lactoferrin and lysozyme, to protect plants against fungal and animal pests. Ventria Bioscience in California is developing rice containing human genes to produce the proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme . This genetically engineered rice is to be used as a treatment for diarrhoea.
Other strange foods
Washington State University is testing barley altered with human genes for lactoferrin, lysozyme, antitrypsin and antithrombin.
Meristem Therapeutics company in France is field testing maize genetically engineered with human lactoferrin genes
Genes from the rabies virus have been inserted into tomatoes to produce an edible vaccine
The U.S. company Prodigene was found to contaminate soybean with a GE corn engineered to produce an experimental pig vaccine, and was fined.
Researchers at the University of Guelph (Canada) have produced the genetically engineered Enviropig to excrete less phosphate in its dung.
Human genes to produce insulin and vaccines are being put into crops like corn, tomato and rice .