PROBIOTICS AND WHITE AGRICULTURE
PROBIOTICS AND WHITE AGRICULTURE
Probiotics are live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut. They are also called “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria”. Probiotics are available to consumers mainly in the form of dietary supplements and foods. They can be used as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).
Probiotics are not the same thing as prebiotics – nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial microorganisms already in people’s colons. When probiotics and prebiotics are mixed together, they form a synbiotic.
Probiotics are available in foods and dietary supplements (for example, capsules, tablets, and powders) and in some other forms as well. Examples of foods containing probiotics are yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation. Most probiotics are bacteria similar to those naturally found in people’s guts. Most often, the bacteria come from two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium.
White agriculture pursues agricultural production using microorganism resources and artificial sources of energy. Traditional agriculture uses plants which trap solar energy through photosynthesis and yield food. However, white agriculture uses microorganisms in place of plants and artificial sources of energy.
ADVANTAGES OVER TRADITIONAL AGRICULTURE:
(i) Unlike conventional agriculture, it is not restrained by climate and season. Large scale production can be done in the factories all year round.
(ii) Unlike conventional agriculture, white agriculture does not require vast tracts of land and is land-saving. It occurs in “factories”, which can produce thousands of tonnes of matter every year occupying little land.
CENTRE FOR CELLULAR AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY (CCMB)
The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) is one of the constituent national laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the premier multidisciplinary Research & Development organisation of the Government of India. It was set up as a semi-autonomous Centre in 1977 in Hyderabad, became a full-fledged national laboratory during 1981-82, and was dedicated to the nation on 26 November, 1987 by the then Prime Minister of India late Shri Rajiv Gandhi.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD
(i) Genetic Engineering Broadens the Scope to Modify Plants: Genetic modification of food is not new. For centuries, food crops and animals have been altered through selective breeding. While genes can be transferred during selective breeding, the scope for exchanging genetic material is much wider using genetic engineering. In theory, genetic engineering allows genetic material to be transferred between any organism, including between plants and animals. For example, the gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas has been inserted into a strawberry, allowing the fruit to be frost-tolerant. This has not as yet been done for currently available commercial food crops.
Foods that have been Modified
Some foods have been modified to make them resistant to insects and viruses and more able to tolerate herbicides. Crops that have been modified for these purposes, with approval from the relevant authorities, in a number of countries, include:
- Oilseed rape (canola)
Modified genes may be present in whole foods, such as soybeans, maize and tomatoes. These GM whole foods are not presently available in Australia. Genetically modified food ingredients are, however, present in some Australian foods. For example, soy flour in bread may have come from imported GM soybeans.
Modified genes may have been used in an early stage of the food chain, but may or may not be present in the end product. Gene products – for example, phytochemicals (plant chemicals that contain compounds which may prevent disease) – may, however, remain in the food chain. This could be an advantage or a disadvantage.
(ii) Nutritional Enhancement: Genetic engineering can also be used to increase the amount of particular nutrients (like vitamins) in food crops. Research into this technique, sometimes called ‘nutritional enhancement’, is now at an advanced stage. Researchers are especially looking at major health problems like iron and vitamin A deficiency. The removal of the protein in peanuts that causes allergies in some people is also being researched.
Benefits of GM Foods
There is a need to produce inexpensive, safe and nutritious foods to help feed the world’s growing population. Genetic modification may provide:
- Better quality food
- Higher nutritional yields
- Inexpensive and nutritious food, like carrots with more antioxidants
- Foods with a greater shelf life, like tomatoes that taste better and last longer
- Food with medicinal benefits, such as edible vaccines – for example, bananas with bacterial or rotavirus antigens.
- Crops and produce that require less chemical application, such as herbicide resistant canola.
Advocates argue that GM foods are potentially better for the environment. By using genetically engineered crops that are resistant to attack by pests or disease, farmers and primary producers do not have to apply large amounts of pesticides and chemicals to the surrounding environment. Developing crops that are resistant to particular herbicides and pesticides may reduce the amount of pesticides used in food production and the residual pesticide levels in the environment.
The Risks of Genetically Modified Crops
Food regulatory authorities require that GM foods receive individual pre-market safety assessments. Also principle of ‘substantial equivalence’ is used. This means that an existing food is compared with its genetics modified counterpart to find any differences between the existing food and the new product. The assessment investigates:
- Toxicity (using similar methods to those used for conventional foods)
- Tendency to provoke any allergic reaction
- Stability of the inserted gene
- Whether there is any nutritional deficit or change in the GM food
- Any other unintended effects of the gene insertion.
The safety of GM foods is still being debated, as it is impossible to predict all of the potential effects on human health and the environment.
Some concerns that have been raised by scientists, community groups and members of the pubis include:
- Antibiotic resistance may develop – bioengineers sometimes insert a ‘marker’ gene to help them identify whether a new gene has been successfully introduced to the host DNA. One such marker gene is for resistance to particular antibiotics. If genes coded for such resistance enter the food chain and are taken up by human gut microflora, the effectiveness of antibiotics could be reduced and human infectious disease risk increased. Research has shown that the risk is very low; however, there is general agreement that use of these markers should be phased out.
- Cross-breeding – other risks include the potential for cross-breeding between GM crops and surrounding vegetation, including weeds. This could result in weeds that are resistant to herbicides and would thus require a greater use of herbicides, which could lead to soil and water contamination. The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions.
- Pesticide resistant insects – the genetic modification of some crops to permanently produce the natural biopesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin could encourage the evolution of Bt-resistant insects, rendering the spray ineffective. Wherever pesticides are used, insect resistance can occur and good agricultural practice includes strategies to minimise this.
- Biodiversity – growing GM crops on a large scale may also have implications for biodiversity, the balance of wildlife and the environment. This is why environmental agencies closely monitor their use.
- Cross-contamination – plants bioengineered to produce pharmaceuticals (medicines etc) may contaminate food crops. Provisions have been introduced in the USA requiring substantial buffer zones, use of separate equipment and a rule that land used for such crops lie fallow for the next year.
Concerns about genetic modification include:
The possible monopolisation of the world food market by large multinational companies that control the distribution of GM seeds.
Using genes from animals in plant foods may pose ethical, philosophical or religious problems. For example, eating traces of genetic material from pork could be a problem for certain religious groups.
Animal welfare could be adversely affected. For example, cows given more potent GM growth hormones could suffer from health problems related to growth or metabolism.
New GM organisms could be patented so that life could become commercial property through patenting.
GM Food Controversy in India
In India, a sizeable population is dependent on agriculture, which itself is dependent on the monsoon and the availability of appropriate material inputs, including seeds. The farmers are generally ready to try out any new technology to improve yield and returns as is evident from what happened during the Green Revolution days. However, the adverse impact of the Green Revolution is now coming to light in the form of mono-cropping, loss of local cultivars or land races, imbalances in soil nutrients, and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, which have affected soil productivity and the returns from agriculture…
Monsanto Holdings P. Ltd, a US based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation that promoted GM crops in India through Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (a 50:50 joint venture between Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) found itself in the center of this debate.
A transgenic crop, Bt cotton was for the first time introduced in India in 2002. In 2002, three varieties of Bt cotton hybrids promoted by Mahyco-Monsanto (Mech 12 Bt, Mech 162 Bt, Mech 184 Bt) were approved for commercialization in 6 states of India.
India, as a party to the Convention on Biodiversity and having ratified the Cartagena Protocol (CP) is committed to the safe handling of living modified organisms (LMOs) or GMOs. CP provides a broad framework on biosafety especially focusing on transboundary movements of GMOs and also covers seeds that are meant for intentional release into the environment, as well as those GMOs that are intended for food, feed or used in food processing.
While countries across the world are joining the league banning GM foods, India is poised to jump onto the GM bandwagon. Approving Bt brinjal, the first food crop in India, would open the floodgates for 169 food crops that are currently in various stages of trials. This, despite the fact that several health, socio-economic and ecological concerns have come in focus in the recent years. A host of other crops, including rice, tomato, okra, mustard, potato, onion, maize, wheat, tea and banana, currently under development, will follow suit and promise to alter the course of Indian agriculture, as well as the way we eat. Advocates of GM foods claim that Bt crops could provide a long-term solution to food security in India, which produced only 70 million tonnes of wheat and 90 million tonnes of rice against a demand of 72 million tonnes and 93 million tonnes, respectively, in 2007-08. And the gap is widening. Yet, many questions about the health and the environment impact of these technologies remain unanswered, and NGOs such as Greenpeace see in the advent of GM crops a conspiracy between seed companies and the government.
The two studies questioning the safety of Indian GM brinjal were :
One was by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a scientist at the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (Criigen), a French environmental organization, and the other by Judy Carman of Australia-based Institute of Health and Environmental Research, an organization that studies health effects of genetically modified organisms.
These studies say that the tests performed by Mahyco Ltd, a Maharashtra-based seed company, are insufficient to prove the safety of Indian GM brinjal. Mahyco wants to commercially launch GM brinjal in India. Green peace’s recent report, Genetic Gamble (link), the growing concerns pertaining GM crops and the threat of approving Bt brinjal in the absence of appropriate tests and long-term analyses to confirm the safety of GM food crops.
In India biosafety laws have also been diluted. While genetic engineering is a process, which impacts the metabolism and physiology of the whole organism, the transgene has been defined as an event, separating its interactions with the organism in an amendment according to Vandana Shiva of Navdanya, an NGO promoting organic cultivation.
Agreeing that GM foods provide hope for increasing food production, experts from the Indian Council Medical Research’s foremost institution of nutrition also add that they need to go through “complete risk assessment”. However, these experts say complete risk assessment may not be possible if the technology developer does not pass on all the information, such as the genetic construct of the particular material. Fears about whether unapproved GM foods have already started coming in are real. Fears about hazardous GM foods slipping in has already led to a major controversy over the import of GM corn-soya blend from the US for distributor, schoolchildren and the poor by Catholic Relief Services and CARE-India. There were apprehensions that the US food consignment could contain traces of the hazardous Starlink Corn, which is not yet approved.