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June 29, 2000


Engineering Abundance


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Engineering Abundance

Times of India
June 30, 2000

Genetics is in the news, thanks to the Genome map of human genes. In
fact, gene maps already exist for some plants. Channapatna S Prakash,
director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at the
Tuskegee University, Alabama, USA, and his group have developed the
genetic map of the cultivated peanut. That is just one among their
many achievements in the field of biotechnology research. He spoke to
Amrita Nair-Ghaswalla about the opponents of biotechnology who ignore
global hunger.

What is biotechnology (BT) and what are its uses?

In the simplest of terms, it is the modification of any living
organism around us to help improve our quality of life. In the modern
sense, BT has been around for more than 30 years. Genetic
engineering, which is the altering of DNA, has also been around for
several years and is no different from what we have been doing for
5,000 years. Only now, the process is more precise and scientific.

Biotechnology can take on world starvation. Research in BT can be
used to help feed the world's population, what with more than one
billion people starving in the world right now.

Is BT safe? Why do we need to adopt it here?

Yes, it is safe and a tool that we have always used. Cross breeding
and hybridisation are age-old techniques farmers and researchers have
used for generations to develop new crops or improve existing ones.
Today's wheat, sweet corn, tomatoes and virtually all crops on the
market are the result of centuries of crossbreeding and
hybridisation. Biotechnology builds on the benefits of foods produced
through traditional methods by precisely segmenting specific traits,
so that benefits can be enhanced.

In India, we are in dire need of an infusion of technology to move
from subsistence farming to profitable farming. This could be that
technology. The World Bank has predicted that by 2020 India will be
the fourth largest economy in the world. India cannot afford to
propel itself into a global economic power without first transforming
its agriculture into a more productive enterprise. Almost two-thirds
of Indians depend on land for their livelihood. A lot of poverty here
is due to the sheer unproductive farmland.

Don't you feel modern scientists like the idea of playing God with
these developments and are merely tampering with nature?

No, not at all. In fact, the Church of England and the Vatican have
both issued statements that there is nothing unnatural about human
beings using God-given talents to address human problems. One has to
also understand that since the dawn of civilisation, man has tampered
with nature. None of the cropland in the world today would survive or
be productive in the wild if it was left in its natural state.

Using BT, scientists have developed trees that suck up mercury from
the soil. Before this, there was no known way to remove mercury from
the soil. The tree releases mercury into the air through its leaves
in safe quantities now. And we have developed plants that produce
vaccines against rabies and cholera, which afflict millions each
year. A new rice strain has the potential to prevent blindness in
millions of children whose diets are deficient in Vitamin A. Edible
vaccines, delivered in locally grown crops, could do more to
eliminate disease than the Red Cross missionaries and the UN task
forces combined, at a fraction of the cost.

Shouldn't crops produced through BT be intensely regulated? Are
consumers mere guinea pigs for this new technology?

It is really plain and simple. If crops derived through BT were not
rigorously tested and found to be safe, they would not be on the
market today. Yes, we have to regulate it. We cannot import anything
without ensuring that it is safe and sound. Regulators need to be
like doctors. They are not here to prevent the medicine from coming,
they should make sure that that medicine is safe. BT crops are
extensively tested in the laboratory and greenhouse several years
prior to small-scale field trials and subsequent large-scale
commercialisation. International organisations such as the World
Health Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation, will not give their blessing unless the improved
variety is found to be substantially equivalent to or as safe as the
conventionally produced variety. Moreover, the government of India's
department of biotechnology and other scientific agencies too have
developed a strong and reliable regulatory mechanism to deal with
safety issues of genetically improved crops. And no, consuming these
products are not capable of generating Frankenstein monsters, as its
opponents would have us believe.

Is BT an expensive proposition?

It is not very expensive compared to many other technologies. Again,
economies of scale will decide, for a farmer will not grow anything
unless it is profitable. They may spend a few more rupees to buy
genetically modified (GM) seeds but they will cut down on their
purchase of insecticides, which is one of the major benefits. And,
more importantly, they will have a choice. No one is going to force
the farmers to grow anything. If a farmer doesn't want to grow GM
cotton because he has a moral opposition to it or it is not
economically viable, he will not do it. But he has to understand,
that a competitor who uses this technology will get yields three
times higher and will have that much more money coming in.

So it all boils down to profit?

Every industry is driven by profit and farming and medicines are
both industries. A farmer wants more money coming out of his farm, a
pharma company, out of its lab. Profit is not a dirty word. And
genetic engineering should not be seen as any different from other
forms of scientific advance.

Who funds most of this research?

Much of the BT research is funded by major corporations worldwide.
Multinationals have vast resources with a huge edge in their
knowledge base, and can play a constructive role. We must remember
that few Indian companies have such resources or a willingness to
invest in long term projects with little hope of immediate revenues.

Because technology is transferable, a study used to produce hybrid
corn grown in Montana may also be used to improve rice grown in
India, where BT can solve many of the problems unique to the Indian
ecosystem. We have the means to end hunger on this planet and to feed
the world's six billion or even nine billion people. For the well-fed
to spearhead fear-based campaigns and suppress research for
ideological and pseudo-science reasons, is irresponsible and immoral.