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Marc Gunther Talks with Dr. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University PDF พิมพ์
เขียนโดย admin   
Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Dr. C. S. Prakash is a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. Prakash, as he's called, oversees research on biotech food crops for the developing world, as well as the training of students and scientists in plant biotechnology. He has also been an active participant in the debate over biotech food, through his website, newsletter and public speaking. He has served in advisory committees to the US Department of Agriculture and the government of India on biotech crops.

Marc Gunther: Dr. Prakash, you grew up in India, you were educated in Australia and now you are working in the U.S. Tell us a little about how you got from there to here.
C.S. Prakash: I grew up in Bangalore, and studied agriculture at the University of Agriculture Sciences. Subsequently, I got the opportunity to go to Australia to pursue my Ph.D. When I finished there, I got an appointment at the University of Kentucky to pursue post-doctoral research in forestry and genetics. This was the mid-1980s-the field of agricultural biotechnology was just getting started-and in around 1989, I came to Tuskegee University to start a program in agriculture/biotechnology. I've been at Tuskegee ever since.

Gunther: What attracted you to the field?
Prakash: Biotechnology is just another tool, a tool in the hands of plant breeders. I've always been a plant breeder and this was a new tool with a lot more power and precision than what we had been used to. So it was logical that a lot of us who studied plants, genetics and breeding embraced this new technology. It just gave us more ammunition to develop better varieties.

Gunther: Let's first talk about your own work, and then about your advocacy. What research have you and your students focused on?
Prakash: The focus of my research has been sweet potato crops and peanuts, because historically, you know, George Washington Carver was a famous scientist who worked on these two crops at Tuskegee University. Those of us working here now-students and other scholars-have been studying the genetic diversity of those two crops and building ways to put foreign genes into both sweet potatoes and peanuts. We have been able to improve the nutritional quality of sweet potatoes, using genetic engineering, and if we can successfully transfer some of these traits to African varieties, down the road we may be able to improve the nutritional composition of sweet potatoes eaten in Africa.

Gunther: Are these commercially available crops or are you still working in the laboratory at testing? Prakash: We are still working in the laboratory; we still have a long way to go. A lot of our work is still about trying to understand how some of these things could be done. Gunther: So you tried to improve the nutritional quality of the sweet potato; what are you doing with respect to the peanut?
Prakash: I'm not directly involved in the laboratory research right now but a colleague of mine, Dr. Guohao He, has done some tremendous work in trying to understand the genome of peanuts, working with scientists at the University of California at Davis. This helps us to understand the basic biology of peanuts and gives us a very powerful tool to breed better peanut varieties for disease resistance and improved quality.

Gunther: So how did you then move from the practice of science to becoming, at the same time, a spokesman on the issue of biotechnology?
Prakash: I was always involved in some outreach because we are a historically black university. One of my jobs was to recruit more high school students into biotechnology. So in the early 1990s, I would visit a lot of high schools to talk about our research and how this technology is going to be critical to the future of science in the United States. I also became a part-time journalist; I used to write newspaper articles on biotechnology trying to explain the research coming out of the labs to the man on the street.

When controversy erupted with the protests and opposition to genetically modified crops, I was drawn into the debate. I spoke at public gatherings, and also would talk to the policy makers in the U.S. Congress, in the United Nations, in the Vatican and so on.

Gunther: As you and others have pointed out, we have been breeding and improving crops for a long time. Why do you think biotech crops aroused the opposition that it has? Were you surprised by that, as a scientist?
Prakash: Certainly. I don't think scientists expected this level of opposition to this technology, because a lot of us, we felt really proud in trying to embrace a new technology that we believed was very safe. And, at the same time, we knew the possibilities of what we could do with this technology were endless. We could change the whole way we feed people by developing improved varieties of crops like wheat and rice, faster than we could do so with conventional tools. So we were really taken aback when opposition started raising its head in the late 1990s.

Looking back, I believe that some of the apprehension and opposition was orchestrated by groups with vested interests. But I can also understand public fears about genetic engineering. It became an emotional issue. People were uneasy. And we as scientists did not do a very good job of explaining the safety of this technology and the benefits that would accrue from its long-time use.

Gunther: Why would anyone have a vested interest in opposing agricultural biotech?
Prakash: I think the biggest reason is that, unlike the traditional tools that geneticists use in plant breeding, this technology was primarily brought forward by private companies. Many of the opposition groups were concerned about the rise of corporate power; remember this coincided with the fears about globalization, and the fear of a few companies dominating the global, agricultural, and trade scene. Biotechnology became a proxy for some of those who were interested in attacking the rise of corporatization if you will, in any culture.

Gunther: That's a fascinating insight. What looked like a debate about science or safety was, in fact, corporate power. If biotech crops had come out of Tuskegee or UC Davis or or another academic institution, the early acceptance might have been greater, you're suggesting.
Prakash: Certainly, I would think so. They also, in Europe, saw it as an example of American hegemony if you will, and as an American effort to try to force the products of U.S. corporate interests on European consumers. Then there was also the unfortunate timing of the mad cow disease that happened in Europe. The Europeans' trust in their regulatory system and their political system to keep the food safe was eroded. Because GM products and genetically modified food was being introduced at the same time, skepticism extended to this too.

Gunther: I imagine that in Europe, like in the U.S., there is also a romance about the small family farm and so all forms of large scale or technological agriculture suffer by comparison.
Prakash: Oh, certainly, in Europe, especially again, the food and agriculture have a much greater relevance to the culture.

The other group that contributed to the attack on biotechnology was the organic food industry. Even today, organic foods make up less than 3 percent of all the food that we consume in the United States and all scientific studies show that they are no safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown food. Even their contribution to the movement towards sustainability can be questioned in many ways. What happened was that the organic food groups recognized that one way to improve their marketability is to portray some of the alternatives as more damaging and harmful. So it was really opportunistic on the part of the organic agriculture groups to start attacking genetically modified foods.

Gunther: Nevertheless, the number of acres of biotech crops planted around the world has been growing steadily not just here in the U.S., but in places like Brazil and China and India as well. Does that reflect a shift in the debate that favors biotech crops?
Prakash: The debate has moved away from questioning the safety of these foods and into some of the issues related to, say, labeling and adventitious presence and other more technical, advanced issues. The downright opposition to these foods, at least in the United States, is not that great.

Gunther: What do you mean by adventitious presence?
Prakash: If you're trying to sell food such as organic soybean or non-GM soybean, the question is, how much of the presence of the so-called contamination-we don't use the word contamination because that's negative-but how much of the GM food can you tolerate? So that's called the adventitious presence.

Nevertheless, there has been growing acceptance of this technology, even in the European Union, although they have been very slow moving forward. What we have seen are countries such as Brazil and India embrace GM crops like cotton in India and soybean and corn in Brazil in a very, very vigorous manner.

Gunther: What does that tell you?
Prakash: That tells me that when the farmers have been given a choice to explore this technology and decide for themselves, whether it is beneficial or cost-effective, the technology will be successful, whether in the Philippines or South Africa or India. So many of the criticisms regarding these technologies-that the small farmers would not be able to afford this, that it is going to be very expensive and so on-have now been unfounded or have been proved wrong.

Gunther: I think my last question - and maybe we should go back to your roots in India to address why this is important - what are the stakes here?
Prakash: The stakes are very big. We already have almost 7 billion people on this planet and it's going to be about 9 billion in about 20 to 30 years' time. We still have a billion people who go to bed hungry every day. We have water and land resource issues. Biotechnology along with many other solutions is going to be essential to our ability to not only produce food, but produce it in a sustainable manner, without degrading the natural resources, the soil and water that we depend on so much, and to make sure future generations have the same ability to feed themselves.

Gunther: So you view biotech food not only as a tool to deal with what may be a global food crisis in the future, also as a "green" technology?
Prakash: I think it's one of the greenest technologies to have come along and the facts prove it. Studies show that we have saved almost a billion pounds of pesticides since we started using these crops. Almost a billion pounds of top soil have been saved from being eroded. And we have produced 200 million more tons of food.

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