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Fears that genetically engineered foods will damage the environment have fueled controversy in the developed world. The debate looks very different when framed not by corporations and food activists but by three middle-aged women in saris working in a Spartan lab in Pune, India. The three, each with a doctoral degree and a full career in biological research, are studying the genes of chickpeas, but they begin their conversation by speaking of suicides.

The villain in their discussion is an insidious little worm, a pod borer, which makes its way unseen into the ripening chickpea pods and eats the peas. It comes every year, laying waste to some fields while sparing others. Subsistence farmers expecting a bumper crop instead find the fat pods hollow at harvest. Dozens will then kill themselves rather than face the looming hunger of their families. So while the battle wages over “frankenfood” in the well-fed countries of the world, here in this Pune lab the arguments quietly disappear.

A generation ago the world faced starvation, and India served as the poster child for the coming plague, occupying roughly the same position in international consciousness then that sub-Saharan Africa does today. The Green Revolution of the 1960s changed all that, with massive increases in grain production, especially in India, a country that now produces enough wheat, rice, sorghum and maize to feed its people. Green Revolution methods, however, concentrated on grains, ignoring such crops as chickpeas and lentils, the primary sources of protein in the country’s vegetarian diet. As a consequence, per capita production of carbohydrates from grain in India tripled. At the same time, largely because of population growth, per capita protein production halved.

The gains in grain yield came largely from breeding plants with shorter stems, which could support heavier and more bountiful seed heads. To realize this opportunity, farmers poured on nitrogen and water: globally, there was a sevenfold increase in fertilizer use between 1950 and 1990. Now, artificial sources of nitrogen, mostly from fertilizer, add more to the planet’s nitrogen cycle than natural sources, contributing to global warming, ozone depletion and smog. Add to this the massive loads of pesticides used against insects drawn to this bulging monoculture of grain, and one begins to see the rough outlines of environmental damage the globe cannot sustain.

During this same revolutionary period, India and other countries, including Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Cuba, developed scientific communities capable of addressing many of their own food problems. High on their list is the promise of genetic engineering (see “New Markets for Biotech). In India, researchers have found a natural resistance to pod borers in two other crops, the Asian bean and peanuts, and are trying to transfer the responsible gene to chickpeas. If they are successful, farmers will not only get more protein; they will also avoid insecticides. “The farmer has not to spray anything, has not to dust anything,” D. R. Bapat, a retired plant breeder, told me. He need only plant a new seed.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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