I am in the process of reading the July 2013 issue of Seminar and came across the article on the GM crop debate by Vandana Shiva. I am an academic scientist trained in life sciences in the traditional, rigorous manner and a bioinformatician and a microbial geneticist. That said, I have no interest in plant biology/biotechnology, except to eat them, and have no opinion whatsoever on the GM debate. Therefore, I am not writing to argue for or against the author’s opinion on the place of GM crops in our society.
What jarred me about the article was the jargon mongering that the author adopts to nefariously drive home her point. Her use of the term ‘horizontal gene transfer’ is a case in point. Part of my research involves studies of horizontal gene transfer in bacteria, and I can claim some expertise on this subject. The author’s use of the term here clearly betrays ignorance of the mechanisms of horizontal gene transfer and the frequency of this event occurring in large, multicellular organisms like ourselves and plants, especially when a transgene is stably integrated into the chromosome. I can say that the chance of such a thing happening is probably as likely as the editors of Seminar forgetting to print the next issue: the world is uncertain enough that the probability of it happening is not quite zero, but close enough for us to not worry too much about it happening. Her shock at the use of bacteria and viruses in genetic modification also appears to emerge from an ignorance of genome structures. We and plants see in our everyday lives enough bacteria and viruses to be even remotely bothered about horizontal transfer from a GM plant. It has now become a cliche that the human body carries ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells.
I understand that Seminar publishes contentious opinion pieces, an admirable ambition. Of course, whether it is prudent to express an opinion without sufficient background knowledge is a matter to debate on another day. However, given that the GM crop issue is a major point of contention among many vested interests – pesticide industry on one hand and the biotechnology cabal on the other – I would have thought that Seminar would have invited one of India’s leading plant scientists, who is not directly involved in the development or propagation of GM crops, to express a counter or a supporting opinion to Shiva’s piece.
Aswin Sai Narain Seshasayee
National Centre for Biological Sciences
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru