Weeds acquire strange resistance to herbicides. Nature seems to go haywire. And causing all the confusion are genetically modified organisms, reports Indira Khurana

Published: Saturday 28 February 1998


-- Is our quest for better food creating aliens hostile and powerful enough to overwhelm the environment? In our desire to create an apple without a wormhole are we about to upset nature's apple cart? These are genetically modified organisms (gmos): a tomato with a chicken's gene that can sit on the shelf for weeks without getting spoiled, a strain of maize that can ward off borer attacks, or a soybean produced by a transnational company which is resistant to the herbicide made by it.

Science now has the ability to tamper with the genetic codes of organisms. But what if science, in all its fervour for developing strange new foods, re-enacts the Frankenstein story: mad scientists playing god in their laboratories. Is science strong enough to protect us from the consequences of unleashing these "aliens" into the wild?

The issue has even got the royalty worrying.Delivering the Lady Eve Balfour memorial lecture in 1996, Prince Charles said, "The introduction of genetically modified organisms must proceed with caution to ensure that any benefits now are not at the expense of the safety and well being of future generations and their environment."

Once introduced into the open, a gmo cannot be recalled. The behaviour of a transgenic plant in the open is unpredictable. Gene coding for specific properties and characteristics unrelated to the plant's natural genetic structure are made to become part of the transgenic plant's genome with the help of gene technology. A situation in which the plant acquires certain new traits that make it impossible to predict its behaviour in the long run.

Transfer of the altered gene into the environment and other plants is a distinct possibi-lity under both natural and artificial conditions. The spread of antibiotic resistant markers through bacterial strains illustrates this phenomena. On ingestion, the alien dna may not be completely degraded. Therefore, the potential for gene transfer exists in the gut.

Another development, unforeseen by the proponents of gmos is the ability of dna to survive in the soil or exist in a dormant state in sea water, from where it can go virtually anywhere.

"The environment has also a profound role to play to impart control on the levels of expression of the introduced genes," says P K Ghosh, advisor in the department of biotechnology (dbt), government of India.

"Results of assessment of transgenic plants in one environment may not be valid, therefore, in other environments. Which is why countries sitting on rich plant biodiversity need to be cautious."

"There are also concerns that the use of some of these plants and their products in the human food chain could prove allergic to some people," says Ghosh. "Information on the health aspects is definitely lacking," he adds. However, he maintains that transgenic plants will be part of all future agriculture.

So weeds can acquire strange resistance, people strange allergies and nature can go haywire with modified genes introduced into the environment.

But transnational companies are going ahead full steam. The investments are large and a huge market exists in the Third World which has weak consumer protection laws and limited science capabilities to assess the adverse effects of these new products on humans.

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