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The Perils of Playing God

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The perils of humans playing God

By Roopen Roy Aug 28 2012

Tags: Op-ed
WORLD IN THEIR HANDS: Some human beings have always been either sceptical or violently opposed to m­ankind playing God. Genetically Modified food evokes extreme emotions. It is often dubbed as Frankenfood
When I was a little child I watched a m­o­vie called T­he Bhairav M­a­ntra. The plot centred a­round a tantrik who resurrected a dead person by chanting the terrible Kalabhairava m­antras. He converted the ‘c­orpse’ into a demon of destruction. Unfortunately in the end, the demon turns against its creator and in the end annihilates him before destroying himself. It is possible that plot was inspired by Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, where a scientist called Dr Victor Frankenstein produced a monster that threatened its creator.

Some human beings have always been either sceptical or violently opposed to m­ankind playing God. Genetically Modified (GM) food evokes extreme emotions. It is often dubbed as Frankenfood. The basic argument of the anti-GM evangelists is that genetic engineering runs the risk of upsetting nature’s balance and can cause irreversible environmental damages that we are unable to foresee or predict.

Quite independently of the GM debate, there is also a view that our farm produce should be natural and organic. Herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers enter our food chain and cause health hazards. Consumers are prepared to pay a premium for “organic” produce.

But sometimes these objectives create conflicts and are at cross-purposes leading to tough policy choices. For instance, one of the ways in which you can limit the use of pesticides is to genetically engineer the plant and produce GM seeds that are resistant to pests and insects. If we use these seeds, no pesticides may be required but the seeds will fall under the category of GM and hence cause a huge hue and cry with the GM activists.

We all know that the rise in food prices hurt the poorest most. And in a networked planet if there is wheat crop failure in Australia and Argentina, international wheat prices will climb. Most of our food inflation is caused by supply constraints — which translated into plain English means our production is not keeping pace with the demand for food to fill hungry stomachs. It is, therefore, important for countries like China and India with billions of mouths to feed to improve our farm productivity. We can do so by improving irrigation, applying fertilisers, employing advanced farming methods but one sure way of improving productivity is creating hybrid plants from different strains in laboratories.

In Vietnam, I saw an interesting experiment. They have created “seed farms” of goats where they are crossbreeding large, hefty Swiss goats with local goats and distributing the crossbred male goats to the villages. They are then bringing back some of the female goats and again cross breeding them with Swiss male goats. I was told that in a matter of 10 years, the meat yield from goats per capita has quadrupled in Vietnam. Because the crossbred goats are locally born, they adapt and acclimatise well.

Part of the white revolution in India was due to the import of Holstein and Jersey breeds of cows. The broiler chickens that have displaced country chickens in our poultries are mostly the Italian Leghorn (from Livorno) and the Rhode Island Red variety.

One of the surefire ways of increasing production is to use genetically engineered seeds but the moment we raise the subject we will have fierce opposition from the anti-GM activists. China has a different view of GM. It has a GM strategy to address its food security issues.According to them GM, with reasonable safeguards, is acceptable if it boosts farm produce, feeds the hungry and increases supplies. Since they are not a western-style democracy, t­hey can take decisions on the GM agenda. In India, our government laboratory produced the Bt Brinjal. But it did not make headway due to public outcry. Doubtlessly, one m­ethod of increasing our farm output and avoiding use of insecticides is through genetic engineering. If we decide not to use GM, we must, in evaluating policy options, weigh the costs of doing it versus not doing it and take a holistic and rational view.

Let us take another example. Dengue is a disease that has no vaccine and no known treatment. It can cause serious health disorders, loss of days and even death. In the 1960s the famous Bengali novelist Shankar wrote Ni­vedita Research Laboratory where a scientist was trying to eradicate malaria by sterilising male mosquitoes. Life is now imitating fiction. Oxytec (, a spin-off from University of Oxford is genetically engineering the male species of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes and releasing them in Dengue affected areas in Brazil. These GM mosquitoes will eventually cause the destruction of this race and rid humankind of the carrier of this disease. Similar experiments are underway for malaria and the west Nile virus. The environmentalists are up in arms because they believe that the transgenic mosquitoes will create ecological imbalance and may create a mutant species that can do even more harm to humankind by creating Franken mosquitoes. Playing God has its charms, but it is not without perils. Life indeed is full of tough choices.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)