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Keep the faith, science's bounty is enough for us

The greed of multinationals must not be an excuse to restrain the quantum leap in scientific understanding and technology. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Jul 10, 2014 08:27 IST
Hindustan Times

I am on a London underground train in a fairly packed carriage, reading my daily paper. There’s a fascinating article about a scientific advance when a voice booms out addressing the whole carriage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Jesus saith ‘I am the way, the truth and the life …’”

I look up to see a burly African man in a smart black suit speaking impromptu with an animated expression.

“’Be not deceived, God is not mocked: For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’. So saith Paul to the Galatians ...”

The young girl next to me has been fiddling with an electronic device and she looks up too, switches it off and dumps it in her bag.
“How dare these people foist their opinions on us? We’ve too paid our fares. We don’t have to be told what to believe!” She has turned her head and is clearly addressing her remarks to me.

“Don’t you object to being told what to believe?”

“It’s a nuisance when you’re trying to read your paper but I don’t care if he tells me what to believe because I won’t believe anything — of that sort, I mean.”

“Neither will I,” the young woman says.

“Mind you, if a person can turn water into wine, I might change my mind,” I say.

“But that’s only in a book, I don’t believe it,” she says.

The Bible-basher’s rant is fading as he walks down the train, which is one continuous carriage, spreading his message.

“You really don’t believe in anything?” she asks. If this was my daughter I’d frown upon her talking to strangers on a train but perhaps I exude an air of harmlessness and she may have a long distance to go without a mobile phone signal or an Internet connection in the underground.
“Nothing. I don’t even believe in organic food. I prefer genetically modified stuff on principle,” I say.
“Oh, why’s that?” she seems genuinely curious.

“Because GM plants absorb fewer of the planet’s resources for their volume of yield and if, for instance, GM grains grow twice as fast and are resistant to pests, they’re part of the solution to planetary hunger.”

“Hmm,” she says.

“So you’re quite willing to listen to my beliefs?”

“Yeah, I asked you!” She replies “But what about side effects?”

“What side effects? Americans have been eating genetically modified grain for generations and nothing has happened. Besides we’ve been eating genetically modified stuff for centuries — only it was modified by cross-fertilisation and cross-breeding and pruning and not in the laboratory. Ever had an Alphonso mango?”

“I have,” she says. “Delicious”.

“Look,” I say, indicating the newspaper article I am reading and hand it to her.

The article begins by saying that 200 million people are infected by malaria each year and the majority of the 630,000 people killed by the disease are children younger than five. But now a team of researchers at Imperial College, London, have found a way of genetically modifying the reproductive organs of the male Anopheles mosquito so as to eliminate, in a few insect generations, the carriers of the disease.

The researchers, led by Andrea Cristanti, modify the male mosquitoes with an enzyme that excises the X-chromosome as they generate sperm. When they fertilise the female Anopheles mosquito, the sperm that produces female mosquitoes is rendered non-functional and so only males, who don’t carry the filarial infection that causes malaria, are born. These new males also carry the genetic mutation so in a few generations no female Anopheles mosquitoes are born and the species dies out.

The GM method could lead to a cheap and effective way of eliminating malaria from entire regions and perhaps from continents. Environmentalists complimentary to the research tell us that the Anopheles mosquito is not in any way essential to the eco-cycle.
So what’s not to like?

Of course I realise that some research and seed-manufacturing companies use the scientific techniques to patent and monopolise products and techniques that ought to be universal common property. Of course I’ve heard the horror stories of multinationals inveigling farmers into buying seeds which don’t reproduce and force the farmer into dependency. The answer is not the suspicion of and protest against the research into genes. The answer is the political modification of the patenting law or even the elimination of such companies. Their greed mustn’t be used as an excuse to restrain the quantum leap in scientific understanding and technology that genetic science, from the identification of the double helix onwards, has seen.
The young lady skims the article and hands the newspaper back to me.

“That’s a good argument for GM,” she says. She goes back to her electronic consul. The preacher man is now far down the train and we can’t hear his well-intentioned diatribe.

“Does someone pay him to do this stuff?” she asks.

“No idea,” I say. “Perhaps their evangelical church recruits volunteers.”

“Where does he get the swanky suit?” she asks.

“Maybe God provides,” I say.

She doesn’t know what to make of that and without another word returns determinedly to her i-Device.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 09, 2014 22:25 IST