Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Taking the Food Out of Our Mouths
* Do Genes flow out of transgenics faster?
* 'Ultra Rice' No Better than Nutrition Pills
* Traceability Bomb
* Refuting Misleading Info
* U.S. Challenges EU's Biotech Food Standards
* Frankenfoods: What Would Hippocrates Do?
* Biotech-Adventure - An Educational Site
* Harvest of GE Sweet Corn and Potatoes at Birkbank Farms
* Designing Improved Plants for Health and Industrial Applications
* Dinner at the New Gene Cafe
* Our Patent Ignorance
* India Definitely Needs Transgenic Technology
Email your response to
Taking the Food Out of Our Mouths
- Florence Wambugu, Washington Post, August 24
(Sent by firstname.lastname@example.org)
As one in a family of nine children growing up on a small farm in Kenya's highlands, I learned firsthand about the enormous challenge of breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger in rural Africa. In fact, the reason I became a plant scientist was to help farmers like my mother, who sold the only cow our family owned to pay for my secondary education. This was a sacrifice in more ways than one because I, like most children in Kenya, was needed on the farm.
I have since made it my mission to alert others to the urgent need for new technology in Africa to help counter hunger, environmental devastation and poverty. African growers desperately need access to the best management practices, fertilizer, better seeds and biotechnology to help improve crop production, which is currently the lowest in the world per unit area of land. Traditional agricultural practices, which continue to produce only low yields and poor people, will not be sufficient to feed the additional millions of people who will inhabit the continent 50 years from now.
At the beginning of my career, I worked side by side with farmers in Kenya's fields trying to improve production of sweet potatoes through traditional plant breeding. Sweet potatoes, a staple crop in Kenya, are besieged by viruses and pests, which result in a significant reduction in yields for growers. Just improving the sweet potato's resistance to one particularly prevalent virus would play a critical role in the fight against hunger in Africa.
But after years of hard work and frustration, I finally realized I would not be able to develop a virus-resistant potato through traditional plant breeding. Biotechnology scientists at Washington University in St. Louis had already developed technology to protect crops against attack by plant viruses. They were willing to share their knowledge with me and to support my work through the U.S. Agency for International Development and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
After 10 years of research in Monsanto and KARI laboratories, field tests of virus-resistant sweet potatoes were initiated in Kenya last year, and good progress continues to be made. Soon African farmers may grow sweet potatoes protected from this disease, potentially increasing yields by 80 percent.
So the question becomes, why aren't these types of biotechnology applications more readily available to African farmers? I believe blame lies with critics who claim that Africa has no chance to benefit from biotechnology and that our people will be exploited by multinationals. These critics, who have never experienced hunger and death on the scale we sadly witness in Africa, are content to keep Africans dependent on food aid from industrialized nations while mass starvation occurs.
It is time for Africa to begin thinking and operating as a stakeholder, rather than accepting the "victim mentality" created by some opponents of biotechnology. The priority of Africa must be to feed its people and to sustain agricultural production and the environment.
We may have missed the green revolution, which helped Asia and Latin America achieve self-sufficiency in food production, but we cannot afford to be excluded or to miss another major global technological revolution.
The people of Africa cannot wait for others to debate the merits of biotechnology. America and other developed nations must act now to allocate technologies that can prevent suffering and starvation.
Recently the United Nations Development Program issued a report endorsing and encouraging continued adoption of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries. I hope it will encourage President Bush and other world leaders to communicate their support for biotechnology research and applications, and to make it a priority to bring those benefits to the underprivileged in Africa and other developing regions.
The writer is director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications-AfriCenter, a nonprofit organization that receives aid from governments, foundations and private businesses.
From: Drew Kershen
Subject: Cross-breeding: Comparing transgenic crops and non-transgenic crops
I write for information and comments about comparing the cross-breeding or gener flow of transgenic crops in comparision to non-transgenic crops.
I believe that I recall recenly on AgBioView the posting of an item saying that the Canadian Government was about to implement regulatory changes for agricultural biotechnology based on the report of the Royal Society of Canada issued in (approx.) April/May 2000. One of the reasons for the increased regulations about to be proposed related to the environmental risk of cross-breeding between crops because (if I recall correctly) several studies, including a recent replication at the Univ. of Chicago of earlier studies, indicated that transgenic crops cross-breed at 20 times the rate of non-transgenic crops.
It is this statement -- transgenic crops would have a gene flow to other crops many times greater than non-transgenic crops -- about which I would appreciate gaining information and hearing comments. Thank you.
- Drew L. Kershen, Professor of Law; University of Oklahoma
From: "Datta, Swapan"
RE: 'Ultra Rice' to Combat Vitamin A Malnutrition
This is certainly a new alternative move to solve the malnutrition problems. But, this is no better than supplying the Nutrition pills. Conversion of beta-carotene from natural sources (including beta-carotene rice) to vitamin A is a natural process well regulated by human body. This will not happen in case of Ultra rice , as it will contain synthetic vitamin A. Farmers and consumers in Asia may not profit much from ultra rice as they will have to depend on sources from the market whereas they could get Golden rice from their field.
International Rice Research Institutute, Philippines
From: Andrew Apel
Subject: Traceability Bomb
With the European Union's proposal for the "traceability" of all GM products, we're looking at bomb construction. With traceability, an activist group working with Genetic ID, out of Fairfield, Iowa, could run a test, wait a bit, and then paralyze the entire food chain. Without the slightest evidence of human harm, but with enough documentation to block the sale of over half the food products on most grocery store shelves. For the first time since World War II, hunger could return to Europe, this time, thanks to "Green" groups.
In April of 2000, the "Consumers Union of Japan" received test results from Genetic ID which showed StarLink was present in Japanese food. The group waited six months to release the results--until one month after activists released similar results of tests in the US.
In March 2001, Greenpeace got the results of tests showing the presence of GM ingredients in baby food in the Philippines, then waited until late August to announce the results.
The "pipeline" for soy and corn is about two years long, and with proposed EU demands for traceability, traceability plus testing would put activist groups in command of virtually the entire food chain. Here is the scenario: test a harvest, keep quiet about the results, then announce the results when it's late enough to send hysteria through the whole traceability train. The longer the activists wait before releasing test results, the deeper the harvest gets into the food chain, and the bigger the disruption. Equally alarming is the fact that such activist disruptions of global food distribution would have nothing to do with health or nutrition.
Greenpeace wants punishment for those who let GM crops into the food supply. Well, let's also have punishment for those who detect breaches of GM regulations and remain silent. Now here's a concept whose time has come: Genetic ID and Greenpeace, willing to be legally liable for the timeliness and veracity of the claims they make, and the damages that ensue for intentionally making false, misleading or belated statements that disrupt global markets.
It wouldn't take the world's most brilliant lawyer to figure out that activist groups are already civilly, if not criminally liable for disrupting world grain markets, and a jury would strip these groups of their assets in an afternoon if given the chance.
Come on, who has the guts? These groups have hundreds of millions of dollars in cash or easily convertible assets that would cover legal fees easily. And cover a rather comfortable retirement, too.
P.S. For you lawyers, don't forget wrongful death allegations, as conspiracy to block food or agricultural aid would get you some cash, too. Given adjusted future earnings estimates, you could probably get US$50 per dead starved person.
P.P.S. Don't tell any of this to the International Court of Justice. If they grab jurisdiction, they'll just put Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth up there with Milosovic and you won't see a dime.
From: "T Sayler"
Subject: Refuting misleading info; Thoughts on Mercola.com
Greetings, I am a writer researching material to refute antibiotech arguments put forth by a leading area health professional. I welcome your comments and information to counter the following piece that the health pro is referencing, found online at http://www.mercola.com/2000/dec/3/ge_food.htm
Dr. Joseph Mercola is a proponent of organic foods and "natural medicine" and claims to have the second most popular natural health site in the world (http://www.mercola.com) I would be interested to learn about the perception of Dr. Mercola's credibility in other academic and health circles. Is it a legitimate source of information for "natural" wellness, does it have a political or profit agenda, or both?
Tracy Sayler, Prairie Ag Communications, Fargo ND
U.S. Challenges EU's Biotech Food Standards
- Alan Sipress and Marc Kaufman Washington Post Aug. 26 2001
Senior Bush administration officials are, according to this story, pressuring the European Union to abandon new restrictions on genetically modified foods that they say could cost U.S. companies $4 billion a year and disrupt efforts to launch a new round of global trade talks. The story says that U.S. officials have repeatedly told their European counterparts that the regulations, which received preliminary approval last month, discriminate against U.S. products in violation of World Trade Organization requirements, raising the prospect of a major and emotionally charged trade dispute.
The European Commission's decision to require the labeling of genetically engineered products reflects a European anxiety about food safety that is far more profound than in the United States, the world leader in agricultural biotechnology. This is a divide that threatens to further aggravate U.S. relations with Europe, already roiled by differences over global warming, arms control and other trade issues. Undersecretary of State Alan P. Larson, the State Department's senior diplomat assigned to economic issues, was quoted as calling the new restrictions "trade disruptive and discriminatory" adding that, "It's obviously a very serious problem that affects a very important trade and one that's of vital interest to a very important constituency in the United States, which supports free trade."
Though U.S. officials have declined publicly to detail what type of punitive action the Bush administration might take against Europe, U.S. officials say the regulations are inconsistent with the terms of the WTO because they treat U.S. products less favorably than European ones.
For instance, Larson was cited as saying the European regulations would require that American crushed soybean oil bear a label, while European cheeses and wine made with biotech enzymes would not be covered, adding, "There are potential WTO concerns about how it is structured now." The story says that U.S. officials have left open the possibility of bringing a legal case before the WTO, which, after lengthy litigation, could eventually impose a politically embarrassing judgment and stiff economic penalties on Europe. But Larson said the administration's immediate focus is on lobbying European governments to amend the regulations before they take effect. He added that the United States and Europe need to resolve the issue quickly so it does not become a "distraction" that interferes with their shared interest in launching new global trade talks as planned later this year.
Officials said that economic losses in the United States -- where 75 percent of soybeans and more than 25 percent of corn comes from genetically modified seeds -- could far exceed other transatlantic trade battles, such as those over bananas and growth hormones in beef. Resolution of the long-running banana dispute earlier this year removed a major irritant in American-European relations.
The dispute could also harden public opinion about biotechnology and its ability to transfer beneficial genes from one species into another. Proponents want it to be seen as a force for progress and global improvement, but it could become a symbol of divisiveness if it set off a bitter trade dispute. The story explains that the European Commission's new standards, among the most far-reaching in the world, call for all products made from engineered material to bear a label saying they contain "genetically modified organisms." They also require producers to document the source of all their ingredients. Since the U.S. crop-handling system generally does not separate modified and conventional crops, the new requirements could be unwieldy and costly for U.S. businesses. European limitations on biotech crops already ban most U.S. corn for food products, estimated by U.S. officials as a $300 million annual loss. The new requirements, which must be approved by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers before
President Bush, who comes from a large farm state and counts on the agriculture industry for political support, raised the issue personally with European leaders last month at the Group of Eight meeting of industrialized countries in Italy, according to a senior administration official. Kimball Nil of the American Soybean Association was cited as saying the food industry is pleased by the tough talk, adding, "The Bush administration met with EU commissioners and very clearly laid down a marker that many of us felt was missing before."
But European officials chafe at the pressure, saying the administration is trying to impose U.S. acceptance of biotech food on a European public that does not believe these products are safe despite scientists' claims. The story says the spread of mad cow disease and other health crises have fueled public concern about food safety, and prominent officials, including Britain's Prince Charles, have been highly critical about biotechnology in crops. Tony Van der haegen, a European Commission representative in Washington was quoted as saying,"We are seeing an illustration of American unilateralism. There are basic psychological differences between American consumers and those in Europe, where [genetically modified products] are not accepted."
Requiring food labels is a way of offering choice to consumers and restoring their confidence in food, Van der haegen said. He added that the United States has exaggerated the potential loss to U.S. companies, putting the figure instead at $2.8 billion a year. On a policy level, U.S. regulators have embraced the position that engineered and traditional crops are essentially equivalent, and so should be treated the same. There is some public -- and congressional -- pressure to require labeling of modified foods in the United States, but promoters of biotechnology have fought tenaciously, and successfully, to resist the efforts. They argue that labels would unfairly stigmatize the products.
The European Union has not approved any new engineered crops for almost three years, and it has been under great pressure from the United States to begin the review process again. The new regulations allow for biotech crop reviews to resume, but only with the requirements that U.S. officials find objectionable.
In an Aug. 9 letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Veneman and Zoellick, 24 U.S. trade organizations were cited as writing that the proposed EU guidelines on biotechnology in agriculture are "commercially unworkable, inconsistent with WTO obligations and would result in billions of dollars of lost U.S. exports." The letter, signed by groups ranging from the Grocery Manufacturers of America to the American Soybean Association and the North American Export Grain Association, said the measure would cause a "serious trade impediment" by requiring labeling and tracing of modified foods, but not of European wines and cheeses.
The European regulations would not apply to the latter items because the requirements distinguish between food made from genetically modified material such as seeds and those produced with the assistance of modified material such as enzymes.
The story says that Mark Mansour, a Washington attorney who represents large food companies and has been consulted by administration officials, has written an analysis urging the administration to file a case with the WTO as soon as possible. Mansour also recommends that the United States withdraw support for the international Biosafety Protocol negotiated in Montreal, a Clinton-era agreement that accepted some of the European concerns about genetically modified foods.
As the regulations now move to the European Parliament, legislators may tighten the restrictions further. Environmental groups are urging them to remove a provision that waives the labeling requirement if the percentage of genetically modified material in a food item is less than 1 percent of the overall product.
Charles Margulis of Greenpeace, which has led the anti-biotech campaign in Europe, was quoted as saying, "The U.S. is trying to force-feed modified foods to the rest of the world, and it just isn't going to work." U.S. troubles over biotechnology and international trade are not limited to the European Union. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka have proposed bans on importing genetically modified foods, and Mexican legislators are also discussing tough labeling laws.
Frankenfoods: What Would Hippocrates Do?
- Michael Valpy Globe and Mail, August 25, 2001
(Via Agnet: archived at: http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood/archives/agnet-archives.htm)
According to ethics reporter Valpy, the precautionary principle is ground zero in the fight over genetically modified food. The principle's simple definition is this: "If you don't know what harm something can do, keep it off the market or otherwise regulate its use until the product is proven safe." Which pretty much fits the medical maxim usually attributed to Hippocrates: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.
As a motherhood statement, no one can quarrel with this. Dr. Arnold Naimark, chairman of the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, whose report on regulating GM food was published on Thursday, was cited as saying that principles can be elevated to a meaningless abstraction, adding, "A consensual declaration in support of motherhood doesn't help the person who has to come up with a child-care policy." Thus, with the precautionary principle, a monstrously big devil is in the details.
Valpy says there is no agreement -- particularly in Canada and the United States -- among government, industry and environmental organizations on what constitutes effective protection for the public on GM food. There is no agreement on "risk" or "safe" or how to regulate for "safe." Are cars safe? Ask the parents of a child hit by one. Should cars therefore be barred from the marketplace until equipped with some technological fix so that they don't hit children?
Or, to be less fanciful, consider air bags. They save lives. They also, on deployment, can kill children and small adults in very minor collisions. What should be the precautionary principle on air bags? When asked to name their biggest worry, people in the biotechnology industry -- the people who bring you GM food -- cite their fear that "science-based regulation" of the industry's products will be tossed out the window in favour of "agenda science" or the misuse of existing science to attack a product or policy. This is code language for the industry's dislike of the precautionary principle.
The story told around the industry is of junior-high-school student Nathan Zohner, 14, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, who polls 50 classmates for a science project on whether dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) should be banned. He tells them it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting, is a major component of acid rain, can cause severe burns in its gaseous form, contributes to erosion, decreases the effectiveness of car brakes, has been found in human tumours and its inhalation can be fatal.
Forty-three of the 50 students questioned say it should be banned. Six are undecided. The 50th student knows that dihydrogen monoxide is water. Several weeks later, The Wall Street Journal gleefully reports on the same survey outside several London underground stations -- the Europeans being shirty about the importation of North American GM foods -- in which 73 per cent of respondents say DHMO should be banned and a mere five per cent recognize it as water. Ignoring mockery, environmental organizations cite the project to modify soy beans with the insertion of a brazil-nut protein gene. The project suddenly is halted when testing shows people allergic to nuts also have an allergic reaction to the modified soy beans.
Valpy says that environment groups also -- and here we have the precautionary principle with its engine turned on -- point to Golden Rice, a yellow-tinted rice genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a source of Vitamin A. The idea is that Golden Rice will be made available in Third World countries where children die of Vitamin A deficiency. Environmental organizations have objected to Golden Rice because no one knows what impact GM crops will have on genetic content of the soil, soil microbes and wildlife; because GM organisms are unstable; and because Golden Rice will not address the key causes of Vitamin A deficiency -- poverty, poor food distribution and lack of land and resources to grow food.
Government and industry argue that GM foods are evolution in a hurry, but otherwise the same as ordinary foods, and therefore without need of the prohibitory regulative regime the environmental groups advocate. Big debate. No middle ground in sight.
Biotech-Adventure - An Educational and Entertaining Website
An educational web site designed to present the factual information regarding biotechnology in a way that will entertain and hold the interest of students and adults. Also, educational illustrations and animations are provided in a format that can be downloaded by teachers and other educators for use in their curriculum.
Faculty expertise in teaching biology (Dr. Meredith Hamilton), animal biotechnology (Dr. Rodney Geisert), plant biotechnology (Dr. Jonathan Shaver), wildlife genetics (Dr. Ronald Van Den Bussche), veterinary science (Dr. Jerry Malayer) and human medicine (Dr. Lee Rickords) brings together a unique group of scientists to develop materials for teaching biotechnology. Ms. Mary Lou Sheffer, School of Journalism and Broadcasting, worked with undergraduates in video development, which allowed the production of accurate and entertaining films depicting real applications of biotechnology today.
The combination of these has resulted in a world class one-of-a-kind web site that will provide the accurate educational materials for which OSU is known, with entertaining characters and animations which help the students relate to the subject.
(*From Prakash: I definitely recommend a visit to this site; I found it to be well developed, with clean graphics and animation; and produced with young and general audience in mind. The movies were fund to watch, and yet informative. Perhaps you can bring it to the attention of your students).
Harvest of Genetically Engineered Sweet Corn and Potatoes Begins at Birkbank Farms
Canada Newswire, August 24, 2001 (sent by Andrew Apel)
Hillsburgh, On, Aug. 24 /CNW/ - For the second year in a row, genetically engineered sweet corn and potatoes are being offered alongside conventional varieties, to customers at Birkbank Farms in Hillsburgh, Ont.
The crops are part of a continuing farm-to-fork study with the University of Guelph that began in June 2000. The project compares different pest management technologies and consumer reaction. Last year, farmer Jeff Wilson, owner and operator of Birkbank Farms, found that genetically engineered Bt sweet corn and potatoes provided an effective pest management option allowing him to reduce insecticide use while producing the high quality sweet corn his customers demand.
This year, Wilson once again found that the Bt sweet corn required no insecticides and the Bt potatoes provided effective management of the Colorado potato beetle, the number pest of Ontario potatoes. The conventional corn was sprayed twice with insecticides and the potatoes were sprayed with an insecticide called Admire. All of the products used have been approved for safety by Canadian regulators and were used according to recommended guidelines to ensure safety.
"This was a challenging summer for managing pests," said Wilson. "The three straight weeks of 30 degree C weather reduced my options for controlling the worms on the sweet corn. The Bt crops allowed me to focus more time on irrigation rather than spraying and the message I got from my customers last years was that they like the fact the Bt crops reduce sprays"
The sweet corn and potatoes were harvested, segregated and are now available in the Birkbank farm market, fully labeled with additional information on Bt crops and the insecticides used. Sales will be tracked for the remainder of the season to test consumer preference.
"Last year we found that the Birkbank farm customers preferred the Bt sweet corn by a margin of 3-to-2" said Katija Blaine, a research assistant at the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph. "We want to see if the public is as interested in the Bt crops as they were last year."
Samples of the sweet corn are available, free, on weekends from 11am-4pm throughout the remainder of August and September. Since the project began last spring, the farm has been completely open to the public with a 4 km self- guided walking trail so customers can stroll through the fields and see for themselves some of the challenges Wilson faces as a farmer.
A web site containing numerous background documents, last year's results, weekly updates on the crops' development, and soon, consumer buying patterns, can be found at: http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood/bt-sweet-corn/bt-index.htm
For further information: please contact: Jeff Wilson, Birkbank Farms, (519) 855-6519 (home); Katija Blaine, 519-362-0101 (cell)/ 12:24 ET
Designing Improved Plants for Health and Industrial Applications
For scientists in the (Iowa State University's) Plant Sciences Institute's Center for Designer Crops (CDC), metabolism means exciting new ways to understand how plants work and how to develop new varieties to help humans, animals, and the plants themselves..........
Plants hold an amazing potential to improve our world and ourselves. New technologies that allow us to explore plants at the molecular level will continue to broaden the uses for plants, a renewable and malleable natural resource. The Center for Designer Crops is working on novel technology that will make it possible.
Dinner at the New Gene Cafe
'How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food'
- New Book by Bill Lambrecht; Amazon.com Price: $17.46; September 2001
It may be true that we are what we eat. Now, with a flood of genetically modified foods overtaking the market, it is possible to eat what we are. But the prospect of genetic cannibalism is the least of the worries of food activists, and journalist Bill Lambrecht's Dinner at the New Gene Café follows both sides of the genetically modified organism (GMO) debate with vigor. He's been covering the story since the mid-1980s, interviewing agricultural officials, biotech industry executives, family farmers, and protesters to build a comprehensive understanding of the issues.
Lambrecht's writing, clear and direct, explains the science and politics plainly enough that even those who flunked Biology or Poli Sci 101 can understand his arguments. He is equally skeptical of the claims of industry shills and activists, and often shakes his head in wonder at the incompetence of government agencies. From academic conferences to the Battle for Seattle, he's seen every aspect of the GMO wars, as they ignited in Europe and slowly spread across the world and eventually penetrated the U.S. Peppered with short essays on his own illegal home experiments with GMO seeds, Dinner at the New Gene Café offers readers insight into a growing question that will most likely define our menu choices for many years to come. --Rob Lightner
>From Publishers Weekly: Lambrecht, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written an indispensable history of the political storm surrounding GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Beginning before the Federal Government first approved genetically modified crops (in 1998) and taking us to the present, Lambrecht traces the struggle by Monsanto Company the industry leader referred to as "Monsatan" by the opposition to overcome the backlash to GMOs that has spread from Europe to other continents and to the United States. This book's greatest asset is the firsthand testimony it gives from every side of the debate. Lambrecht himself reported on everything from the Starlink controversy, in which genetically altered corn that had not been tested on humans turned up in Taco Bell products, to the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, which he witnessed firsthand, to the conference on bio-safety in Montreal, where an international agreement to precautionary language on GMOs marked the first step towa
Richard Ben Cramer: "The first great story of the new century, and Bill Lambrecht owns it. At the juncture of science and politics, he reports and writes with unmodified purity."
Kirkus Reviews: "Stunningly comprehensive and intensely absorbing. Should be required reading for anyone who eats."
Other Books Due Out Soon:
(1) Seeds of Contention : World Hunger and the Global Controversy over Genetically Modified Crops
by Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Ebbe Schioler, Ebbe Schiler
$12.95; 176 pages (September 2001) ; Intl Food Policy Research Institute; ISBN: 0801868262
(2) The Politics of Precaution : Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries
by Robert L. Paarlberg
$19.95;184 pages (September 2001) ; Intl Food Policy Research Institute; ISBN: 0801868238
Our Patent Ignorance
The Times of India Aug 24, 2001
R A Mashelkar, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, is a long-time advocate of patent literacy. The basmati episode proves that there is need for far greater awareness, Mashelkar tells Chandrika Mago as he explains India's position and `triumph' in RiceTec's `basmati' patent case:
Despite the official position that India has won the basmati battle, why is there a feeling that we have, in fact, been caught napping?
It's unnecessary confusion. The RiceTec patent surfaced in 1997. India put in a re-examination request in April 2000; it took us two years of hard work to put together the data. Strategically, we challenged three (of 20) claims which were too broad and could affect our exports. RiceTec withdrew those, and a fourth, too. The US patent office, on re-examination, decided to make them withdraw 11 claims. That left five claims. They have crossed a Pakistani basmati variety with an American semi-dwarf variety. These new rice lines have nothing to do with basmati.
Should we have challenged all the claims? Some suggest what has been approved is a ``back-door'' patent.
Frankly, people are unaware of what is involved in the challenge of a patent. You can challenge a patent only if you have substantial data. We had to collect evidence, back it with the germplasm collection, evaluate the grain characteristics. There's a lot of over-reaction. Texmati is being sold in the US for the past 20 years yet it hasn't captured the market. Even after RiceTec's 1997 patent, our exports to the US have doubled.
The outcome of such contests depends on documentation of traditional knowledge. Where do we stand on this front? Turmeric (its use in wound healing) was the first fight the Third World took on, and won. It gave us confidence. Subsequently, as chairman of the standing committee on IT in the World Intellectual Property Organisation, I took up the issue that traditional knowledge should be considered on par with industrial property systems. For the US patent office, the problem was that traditional knowledge lay in books or in the head. It wasn't accessible. It wasn't available in the International Patent Classification System, used by patent examiners around the world. This is when the idea of a traditional knowledge digital library came.
Of over 100,000 sub-groups in the international classification system, there is only one, currently, on traditional medicines. Once the library and our Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification system (TKRC) are in place, we will have as many as 5,000 entries on indigenous medicine. The project has started; the Union government gave Rs 1.4 crore early this year. We're beginning with medicine, the most contentious. This would make the connection between, say, our Sanskrit shlokas and the patent examiner. Translated into English, a language they can understand, it will go into the digital library, linked to the international patent classification system through TKRC. Experts in intellectual property, IT, indigenous systems of medicine and scientists will come together for this. It is important because the indigenous systems talk of symptoms; the West, of disease.
What are the lessons for us in the battles for turmeric, neem, karela, jamun and basmati?
Turmeric was just a starter, it opened up opportunities. One fallout was understanding the importance of documentation, in a way the rest of the world could accept. Two, countries like America waking up to ground-level problems. Our knowledge isn't codified, the US office gets 500,000 patent applications a year and has no option other than an electronic search. Help us to help you, was their suggestion. Windows have been opened, establishing the legitimacy of traditional knowledge. The international patent community has accepted this; this has important ramifications.
There still doesn't seem to be a constant vigil, or monitoring, of patents. Don't we need that?
It has to be done on an individual basis. See this in perspective - the fight on turmeric was a government initiative, the basmati case was fought by industry and the government. Over a period of time, industry must become smart enough to fight on its own. All over the world, it's not governments that contest cases. But there was tremendous lack of awareness in industry. That is changing, the intensity of patent filing is increasing. The drugs and pharmaceuticals industry is becoming smart. In 2000-2001, CSIR filed 454 foreign patents, against 199 the year before. The good news is that awareness is growing.
Once our plant varieties, biodiversity and geographical indication Bills are in place, do you think they would provide adequate cover?
The patent amendment, plant varieties protection and biodiversity Bills have all been extraordinarily, vigorously and intensively debated for several years. The final product should take care of India's interests.
Haven't these been delayed inordinately? It's an evolutionary process. Acts are dynamic, not immortal. We are learning to deal with knowledge generated by communities, societies. This is being looked at for the first time. There were 20 roving workshops for the patent amendment Bill.
Where do we stand on these fronts in TRIPS?
Within TRIPS, the entire developing world is together, there is growing awareness. It is still up for review. But there is enough flexibility for the developing world; it is up to a country to intelligently use this. The developed world is also concerned. Britain has set up a commission, a sort of independent jury, to look at issues such as economic access to essential medicines. The commission, of which I am a member, had its first meeting in May; we are to give the report by March.
We talk of spreading awareness, getting our act together. Overall, in terms of strategy, what do we need to do?
The first thing is that we must build capacity in generating new intellectual property, protecting it, valuing it. We must build capacity in legislation, policy, enforcement. We must integrate IPR into courses in law, engineering, trade and commerce, social sciences. IPR is a game of the mind, it deals with products of the mind and their impacts, and these are now being used as strategic weapons. We need a wholly integrated view at all levels, reflected all through.
Is it happening?
Steps are being taken. Five chairs have been created. Of these, two IPR chairs, at the Pune and Allahabad universities, are being funded by CSIR. The Bangalore Law School is integrating IPR into courses. As demand increases and people understand the real meaning of a knowledge economy, a transformation will take place.
Aren't we running out of time?
In a country like India, things happen fast if people catch on. I still believe we can catch on. Institutions, industries must come in. One thing the basmati episode has shown is the need to create far greater awareness, explaining in the local languages. It's a literacy issue - and that includes the media.
India Definitely Needs Transgenic Technology
Shoba Naidu, Economic Times, Aug 24, 2001
TRANSGENIC technology has the potential to usher in a second green revolution but there are several apprehensions and misconceptions about this new technology.
Prof G Padmanaban, scientist emeritus, Indian Institute of Science who chaired a Ficci seminar on agro-processing and biotechnology held in Bangalore recently, spoke to Shoba Naidu on the subject.
How will the adoption of genetic modification of crops help a country like India?
I think India definitely needs transgenic technology. Considering that we have a high child mortality rate and the average life expectancy is only 61 years as compared to 80 years in western countries, we can use the technology to develop nutritious food. This technology can be used to enrich crops with essential amino acids, mineral nutrition and so on. All our research should be directed to making rice and one vegetable which can provide adequate nutrition. Moreover, there are huge possibilities in several fields including pharmaceuticals and agriculture.
Are the fears of genetically modified crops justified?
I really feel that it is hyped up by the NGOs. The controversy raging between the US and EU on the subject is basically an economic war. The US is dominating with its products while Europe is self-sufficient in most foods and is worried about the effect of these imports on their economy. So it puts up barriers in the form of GM labelling, organic foods and so on. But these are not applicable to a country like India.
Could you elaborate?
The most often expressed fear is what happens if the modified genes are transmitted to other plants or animals. But what they do not know is that transfer of genes is constantly taking place in nature and in a magnitude several orders higher. For example, the human genome analysis shows that at least 40 genes have come from bacteria. But humans have a very good repair mechanism and any damage to a gene is immediately repaired. So the gene transfer takes place more commonly in the lower species or in plants. Take the example of rice. There are thousands of varieties of rice some of which are considered weeds today but at one point of time they were all crops. In fact, farmers cross weed variety with the crop variety to transfer the sturdy gene to the crops.
What is the difference in the hybrids introduced during the Green Revolution and the present day transgenic crops?
Green revolution was brought about by hybrids created by the transfer of thousands of genes. The argument is that the transfer is taking place in related species whereas in transgenics the gene transfer can take place between several species. But my argument is that genetic transfer is happening all the time in nature. The only care you have to take is to test for toxicity and allergenicity.
What about the issue of resistance?
This is also a false argument. For example, what are they doing for resistant tuberculosis, resistant cancer or resistant malaria? Every one of the diseases comes up with a strain which is resistant to classical treatment. But whatever we do we can only postpone but can't avoid resistance. We have to be constantly on our toes to keep up with the changes.
What about fears of the Terminator gene?
Terminator gene is only a concept. The seed has not yet been developed, it is still in an experimental stage and can work only if several factors come into play.
Why is there resistance to Bt cotton?
Bt cotton is the first transgenic crop to reach an advanced stage of approval in India. The Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) organism has been sprayed for the last 50 years as a bio-pesticide but nobody bothered about it.
But now when transgenic hybrid cotton is developed a lot of noise is being made. Why are we putting riders only on GM crops?
I fear that by the time we decide to grow the plant some new strain may arise. Even China has adopted Bt cotton in a big way, why can't we?