Fbae Logo
Home | | Support Us | Contact Us
Goals & Objectives Our Position False Propaganda Important Publications Important Links Events News Biosafety
Fbae Header Home





Misuse of Science to Spread Suspicion and Fear of Biotechnology

Prof. C. Kameswara Rao

Anti-biotech activists often lace their statements with bits and pieces of science, taken out of the context.   They may even sound authentic, to the generally ignorant media and the public.   The unscientific and unacceptable implication is that, all GE products are dangerous, on the basis of the ‘facts of science’ the critiques have cited.  This is misuse of science to spread suspicion and fear of biotechnology.   Three instances should amply illustrate the point. 

Gossypol: A year or so ago, in Karnataka, India, a prominent farmers’ leader (now deceased) cautioned women who work in the cotton fields, that Bt cotton contains an anti-fertility factor.   Women workers refused to enter Bt cotton fields, affecting cotton picking that season. 

The cultivated cottons are species of the genus Gossypium, and contain a polyphenol called gossypol in all parts, but particularly concentrated in the roots and reddish surface glands.   Gossypol does not get into the cotton fibre or the seed oil; even if it does it is destroyed by heat.   Bt cotton naturally contains gossypol because it is a cotton plant but not because of the Bt gene in it.   The Bt gene only synthesizes the toxin against the bollworm.   Gossypol is used in five different systems of medicine to induce abortion and menstruation and so has an anti-fertility activity, which for centuries did not affect women working in cotton fields.     

Phytoestrogens: An anti-GE activist from Hyderabad, India, who is now made famous by GM Watch, stated at a public meeting in Tirupathi (Andrha Pradesh, India) in October 2003, that girls eating GE soybean in the US are reaching puberty a couple of years or so earlier than usual, because the GE soybean contains phytoestrogens.   He did not say anything about the boys who have been eating the same GE soya (some signs of mammary development?).

The isoflavonones, genistein, biochanin A, diadzein, formononetin, equol and glycitein are plant products that simulate the function of mammalian estrogens, and so are called phytoestrogens.   Phytoestrogens were reported in pea nuts, chick pea, several varieties of the common bean, broad bean, cluster bean, soybean, lentil, pea, horse gram, red gram black gram, green gram, and even in some varieties of rice and wheat, which have been safe to eat for ages.   Soybean and red clover have been identified as the richest sources of phytoestrogens.   Genestein and diadzein, particularly from soybean, were shown to control menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, hypertension and atheroscloerosis.   Several of the isoflavonones were also shown to function as antioxidants and exercise protective action against cancer of the breast, stomach, liver, colon and prostate. There are several on-going research projects aimed at utilizing phytoestrogens as medicine.   Formulations containing such compounds were patented and are now being commercialized in several countries.   The mischief lies in linking the isoflavonoid phytoestrogens with the chemically distant mammalian oestrogens, which are steroidal compounds and saying that phytoestrogens are dangerous.  

Deadly nightshade:  In the context of the transgenic potato with protein enhancing genes from the grain amaranth, a famous Indian critique of GE stated in a newspaper some months ago, that we should be very careful with this new potato as it belongs to the deadly nightshade family, an absurd and unnecessary warning.  

Linnaeaus gave the botanical names for potato and deadly nightshade by 1753 and the names are still current.   The concept of the Family in biology developed only some 50 years later and soon after this, the two species were included in the same family, the Solanaceae, basing on their characters.   The botanists were certainly aware that deadly nightshade was really deadly and that potato is an important source of food.   Tomato, brinjal (aubergine, egg plant) and chillies, which are widely consumed, also belong to the Solanaceae.   These vegetables and potato have been safe major plant foods for ages.  Several species of the genus Solanum (to which potato and brinjal also belong) are consumed in the local tradition in many parts of the world and several other species of Solanum are used in indigenous medicine.   Many botanical families include several very toxic species along with numerous safe foods, as for example hemlock in the family Apiaceae, along with the widely consumed carrot, coriander, parsley, cumin, fennel, etc. 

An effective means of removing fear from the public mind is to enhance the levels of awareness and knowledge.   Conveniently twisted and inaccurate information is more dangerous than total ignorance.