A popular perception of the phrase “genetically engineered food” looks something like Victor Frankenstein’s lab. Only evil. Particularly in Europe, where genetically modified produce must be labeled as such, hatred of altered food — sardonically nicknamed “Frankenfood” — is so virulent that the one vitamin-enhanced grain ready to be planted right now — the Vitamin A-enriched golden rice — is locked in a grenade-proof shed in Switzerland, away from activists who would like nothing more than to erase any trace of its existence.

The move amplified an already tense relationship between American exporters, the World Trade Organization, and the EU, and has since become a nagging political issue on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s this part — the politics — that bothers Autar Mattoo the most. “I am not a policymaker,” he says from his office at the USDA’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems labs in Beltsville, Maryland. “I am a scientist.” And as one of the world’s leading authorities on plant science Mattoo is frustrated by the lack of positive coverage science gets in its efforts to construct nutrient-dense food for a malnourished planet. People speculate, jump to conclusions, and infer the worst, he says. But few stop to look at what science is trying to achieve.

Mattoo puts the goal in simple terms: “This technology is going to save the third world.”

Mattoo will present “Genetically Modified Crops are Inherently Synergistic To Sustainable Agriculture” at the biotech symposium on Wednesday, April 29, at 11:35 a.m. at McCosh Hall.

The technology Mattoo is talking about is his research with tomatoes — one of many programs the USDA is developing in a quest to supply people with better nutrition. Unlike the perception of mad scientists playing God with the food supply, Mattoo’s manipulations of the genetic makeup of tomatoes are more enhancement than subversion. As he has done for more than a decade, Mattoo is working to ramp up the antioxidant count inherent in tomatoes so that they might provide undernourished people more opportunity to ingest healthy, disease-fighting nutrients.

What worries him is the sustainability of it all. One major criticism of genetically modified crops is their relationship with agriculture in general, particularly organic crops. Genetically enhanced or not, crops need fertile soil in order to grow, and soil, in turn often needs fertilizer.

At Beltsville, colleagues of Mattoo are hard at work developing mulches from plastics, legumes, and “non-legume” sources. What they have found so far, Mattoo says, is a highly synergistic relationship between the soils and the mulches. Plants are showing signs of self-fertilizing the soil and the potential for needing less pesticide. These colleagues, like Mattoo, have been working on the problem for a decade — starting with a look at infestation levels and then at the science behind it. And, like him, they have found progress to be slow.

Criticisms have been more forthcoming than answers, and those critical of the science aspect often chide scientists for arrogantly trying to turn single crops into multi-vitamin pills, rather than looking at the problem more holistically. Mattoo is unmoved by such opposition. His job as a scientist, he says, is to do science, and he sees no real difference between what he personally is doing and what farmers and seed breeders have done for centuries.

Growers have long been cross-breeding plants and enhancing crops and yields through a Darwinian approach to seed selection. Genetic engineering, he says, is simply a more precise tool that will lead scientists to learn better ways to improve yield sizes, lifespans, and growth times for an escalating world population. And he does not share the worry of critics who say that genetically altering seeds will lead to unforeseen catastrophes to the food supply. Quite simply, marauding seeds would not be likely to be unleashed to the world.

Mattoo holds bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, botany, zoology, and geology from J&K University in Kashmir, India, and a master’s in biochemistry and a Ph.D. in microbiology from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India. He was a visiting scientist in Australia and Israel in the 1970s an ‘80s and moved to the USDA in 1984. He has guided more than a dozen Ph.D. students and advised 80 or more postdoctoral research associates and visiting scientists and professors from the U.S. and from foreign countries in biochemistry and molecular biology.

For sure, Mattoo does not believe he is working on a mere multi-vitamin. His research, he says, is concerned with one avenue in the overall picture. Other scientists are working on other avenues, and an eventual confluence will occur. That said, Mattoo, who was born in Kashmir and has witnessed first-hand (and a few times experienced) hunger and poverty in his homeland and in Bangladesh, likes criticism. Right or wrong, he says, critics point out problems, and a good scientist loves solving them.

Also in answer to criticisms, Mattoo points to India itself. In a land of more than a billion people the option to import and develop foods modified for longer shelf life and amplified nutrient content is imperative. The country spends millions on such research, hoping to find ways to improve crop yields and the nutrition therein.

Mattoo is afraid that politics will remain a problem in Africa, however. But a scientist cannot be troubled by political drama. Science, he says, needs to keep working so that it is ready when called upon.

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