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August 9, 2000


Biotech articles from India Abroad -- Part I


India Abroad, the weekly newspaper on India from USA has focused its
August 4, 2000 issue on agricultural biotechnology in India. Read it

I have reproduced the articles below,


Transgenic Seeds: Key to Green Revolution, Version 2.0

Commercial benefits of growing genetically modified crops

Farmers can profit not only from higher yields, but also by reduced
wastage of their crops


Environmentalists may challenge the veracity of the claims. But
biotechnologists vouch that transgenic foods not only bring pecuniary
benefits to farmers at levels unheard of before, but also address the
twin issues of ensuring food security and eliminating the ill-effects
of indiscriminate pesticide use. It has been estimated by agencies
such as the United Nations Development Program that the global
population will double over the next 25 years, by which time, India
will be the most populous nation, overtaking China.

Since the amount of arable land is unlikely to expand significantly
in the future, the only alternative left for ensuring food for the
billions is to enhance the productivity of crops. "Transgenic seeds
with increased yields mean less deforestation -- reduced conversion
of forest land into farmland. Hence, they are a means of sustainable
agriculture," says Meena Vaidyanathan, communications manager and
spokeswoman for Monsanto, the United States-based biotechnology major.

In India, about 170 million hectares of land is used for farming. But
most crops have a low yield compared with global levels, and the
growth in agricultural output is barely 3 percent per annum. Take the
case of vegetables, that are considered a vital part of the diet.
They account for barely 2.6 percent, or 6.5 million hectares, out of
the country's total cropped area. The annual production of vegetables
is just 70 million tons, with an annual growth rate of a little over
2.5 percent. Therefore, the per-capita consumption of vegetables in
the country, which comprises a large vegetarian population, is barely
200 grams per day, compared with the recommended level of 285 grams
per day.
To top it all, farmers lose close to Rs. 110 billion ($2.5 billion)
worth of vegetables every year on account of pest attacks, says the
Union government's Directorate of Vegetable Research, based in
Varanasi. Besides, the effectiveness of the present pest-control
measures is also falling, it adds.

This is despite the fact that being extremely susceptible to pest
attack, vegetables use up 17 percent of the amount spent in the
country on insecticide. And estimates by various agencies indicate
that out of the Rs. 35 billion ($795 million) spent on pest control
every year, about Rs. 15 billion ($341 million) is going into
controlling one species of pest alone -- the lepidopterans, which not
only attack vegetables, but also cereals, oilseeds and coarse grains.
Scientists say this is where biotechnology comes in. "Use of
insect-resistant vegetables would provide significant profit to
farmers, intangible health benefits to people and a cleaner
environment," says Arvind Kapoor, of Nunhems Proagro, a subsidiary of
France-based biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and foods giant, Aventis.

Based on a study by Aventis in India, Kapoor cites the example of
tomatoes and says farmers in the country spend between Rs. 4,000
($91) and Rs. 10,000 ($227) per hectare on insecticides. If they
spray their tomato crop with good quality insecticides, between 20
percent and 35 percent of the produce is lost due to pests. However,
if the crop is not sprayed at all, or ineffective sprays are used,
the loss can vary between 50 percent and 90 percent. What is more,
Kapoor says that in tomatoes, almost the entire first crop -- which
can fetch up to Rs. 7 (16 cents) per kilogram -- is lost to insect
attacks despite the use of good pesticides. This loss, he says, is
rather high, since subsequent pickings fetch no more than Rs. 1 (2
cents) per kilogram.

Quoting his study, Kapoor says that, by using transgenic tomato
seeds, the farmer may spend Rs. 2,800 ($63.6) per hectare, compared
with Rs. 1,200 ($27.3) while using normal seeds. In the process,
however, the outgo on pesticide declines sharply to Rs. 1,350 ($30.7)
per hectare, instead of Rs. 4,500 ($102.3), while the loss on account
of pests reduces dramatically to Rs. 3,300 ($75), instead of Rs.
13,200 ($300) per hectare. The result: A net earning of Rs. 58,550 ($
1,331) per hectare, compared with Rs. 47,100 ($1,070) using normal
seeds -- a gain of Rs. 11,450 ($261) per hectare. Similarly, Aventis
has estimated that additional profits that can accrue to farmers by
the use of transgenic seeds is Rs. 12,325 ($280) in the case of
brinjal (egg plant), Rs. 10,800 ($245) for cauliflower, and Rs. 3,750
($85) for cabbage.

Little wonder, that when Novartis came up with an improved hybrid
seed for tomatoes in 1996 -- called Avinash, which was not
genetically modified -- it was a runaway success, even though it cost
the farmer Rs. 75,000 ($1,705) per kilogram, instead of Rs. 5,000
($114) per kilogram for normal seeds.
The scenario is similar in the case of oilseeds. India's oilseed
production has plateaued at around 14 million tons. As a result, the
the country has to import Rs. 80 billion ($1.82 billion) worth of the
commodity every year to meet the shortfall in supply.
Biotechnologists say that hybrid oilseeds, with properties to control
pest attacks, will be able to do wonders for the nation's economy.

Take the case of mustard -- the second-most important oilseed in the
country, after groundnut. The demand-supply gap forces the country to
import mustard worth Rs. 35 billion ($795 million) every year.
Experts say there is scope to eliminate imports without bringing
additional area under the mustard crop, since the average yield per
hectare of this commodity is 1,017 kilograms in the country, compared
with 2,500 kilograms in the United States.
Biotechnologists claim that by sowing 45 percent hybrid mustard
seeds, farmers can profit by an additional Rs. 14,400 ($327) per
hectare. The yield, they claim, can go up by a minimum 30 percent,
while the level of pesticide use will decline sharply. Similar is the
case with several other plants, they contend.

According to Dr. P.K. Ghosh, adviser at the Department of
Biotechnology (DBT), the genetic make-up of a plant is responsible
for 50 to 60 percent of its yield contribution. While 25 percent to
30 percent of the improved yield is accounted for by agronomic
practices and agricultural technologies, the remaining 20 to 25
percent is on account factors related to biotic and abiotic stress.
In a paper published recently, Ghosh further argues that: "The world
community has harnessed the potential of agronomic practices,
agricultural technologies and factors related to the control of
biotic and abiotic stress to the maximum extent possible during the
last four decades."
He, therefore, feels "greater potential rests in harnessing the
genetic biodiversity through modern gene technology, both in
increasing productivities and in building sustainable development in
coming decades."

It is for this reason that about 70 commercially-important crops have
been identified globally for incorporating genetic traits from other
species. Apart from cotton and sugarcane, the transgenic research
covers crops such as beet, barley, petunia, Bengal gram and
alphalpha. The farmers' keen interest is also evident since the area
under transgenic crops has increased over 15-fold, from merely 1.68
million hectares in 1996, to 27.8 million hectares in 1998.
Leading the pack is the U.S., where, in a matter of five years,
genetically-modified seeds account for 50 percent of the the area
under crops such as cotton, soybean and corn. Other transgenic plants
permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration include, Potato,
tomato, canula, squash and papaya. In fact, the U.S. today accounts
for over 75 percent of the land used for transgenic crops, even
though China was the first to permit their use. Besides, other
countries such as Canada, Japan, Australia, Mexico and some European
countries also allow them on a limited scale.
In India, however, even though transgenic plant research -- some
nearing completion -- is being conducted in about 10 plant varieties
and hybrids, not a single seed, thus far, has been permitted to be
commercially exploited.
Dr. Manju Sharma, secretary, DBT, nevertheless, says the government
is keen to introduce transgenic crops soon. And Monsanto, which, so
far, has borne the brunt of environmentalists' wrath in the country,
may be the first to do so with its Bt cotton.

Food for Billions

The Green Revolution was restricted largely to wheat, but transgenic
seeds will cover entire spectrum of crops

"There is no evidence to indicate that biotechnology is dangerous.
After all, Mother Nature has been doing this for God knows how long."
Norman E. Borlaug Nobel Peace prize winner, 1970


Ever heard of protein-fortified potatoes, low-calorie mustard oil,
pest-resistant cabbage, insect-resistant rice, or worm-busting bell
peppers? Over the next two to five years, all these are expected to
adorn your dining table and become a part of your daily diet. Enter
the world of genetically-modified foods, or transgenic crops, which
biotechnologists describe as the 20th century's gift to the 21st.

And not without reason. It has the potential to dwarf the
achievements of the first Green Revolution, which, since the 1970s,
dramatically changed the lives of wheat farmers in the northern belt
of the country by increasing the productivity of the cereal several
fold. Version 2.0 of the revolution promises similar, if not better
results, in practically every conceivable crop. What is more,
biotechnologists insist that it will involve using far less
pesticides that are harmful to mankind and the environment.

The roots of Green Revolution, Version 2.0 -- as it is being dubbed
-- lies in the laboratories of some private sector companies and
several government-aided research institutions spread across the
country. Scientists in these laboratories are busy identifying and
cloning beneficial genes of living organisms like bacteria and
fungus, and inserting them into the DNA of plants. The aim: To alter
their genes and make them self-contained to fight pest attacks,
increase productivity, delay their ripening, or even improve the
quality of the produce, with added properties. They say that 50-60
percent of a plant's yield is dependent on its genetic make-up,
whereas modern agricultural practices can improve productivity by no
more than 25-30 percent.

Take the case of the sprawling Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)
campus in Delhi. A group of young scientists at the National Center
for Plant Genome Research (NCPGR) there, led by JNU vice chancellor
Dr. Asis Dutta, is working on modifying the DNA of several crops,
including potatoes, rice and chick pea. "Our research on potato is at
an advanced stage. Recently, a memorandum of understanding was signed
between NCPGR and the Central Potato Research Institute, and
multicentric field trials of transgenic potato are in progress," says
Dutta. So is the case at Badshahpur -- a nondescript village in
Haryana, about 20 miles from Delhi. A team of six scientists at
Proagro Seed Co. -- a subsidiary of the France-based Aventis group --
led by biotechnologist Dr. Vinod Kumar, is making transgenic seeds
for crops like mustard, cauliflower, cabbage, tomato and egg plant.

Similarly, the United States-based biotechnology and food major,
Monsanto, through its joint venture, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company
Ltd. (Mahyco), has practically cleared all but one hurdle in
commercially introducing its transgenic cotton seed in the country.
Mahyco's cotton seed has an in-built gene derived from a nontoxic,
ubiquitous soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The
genetic modification will help the crop develop resistance to the
Lepidopteran insects that play havoc with cotton plants all over the

As a result of such research, potatoes, for example, will no longer
be rich in carbohydrates. Farmers will not have to worry about losing
an average 35 percent of their vegetable produce to pests and worms.
Mustard oil will be low in calories. And a popular string of masur
dal, a lentil, which is banned due to its cancer-causing properties,
will be free of carcinogens. Experts in the field say that the farmer
will be the one to benefit the most, while the consumers can be
assured that the food they eat will not contain huge doses of
pesticides, which are being sprayed indiscriminately over crops today.

"In India, losses in vegetables, resulting from insect damage, exceed
Rs. 110 billion ($2.5 billion), and the effectiveness of the present
insect-control measure is rapidly falling. Using insect-resistant
vegetables -- developed through biotechnology -- can significantly
impact this scenario," says Dr. Arvind Kapoor, managing director of
Nunhems Proagro Seeds, which, too, is a part of the French
pharmaceutical and biotechnology giant, Aventis.
Kapoor explains that chemical insecticides, if used well, are able to
control the growth of first-generation pests to the extent of between
60 percent and 95 percent, and between 40 and 80 percent of the
second-generation larvae. But transgenic seeds can control pest
attack to the extent of 99 percent, depending on the resistance trait
at which the gene implant is targeted. For example, Proagro claims
that by using insect-resistant transgenic seeds of egg plant, a
farmer can earn a profit of Rs. 53,825 ($1,223) per hectare, instead
of Rs. 41,500 ($943) per hectare that conventional seeds fetch.

Yet, there are several environmental activists who say that the
claims by companies like Proagro and Monsanto are not entirely true.
They say that transgenic seeds have a potential to cause severe
damage to the environment, increase the usage of herbicides, and even
trigger a biological war. The main reason behind their apprehension
is that the commercial introduction of transgenic seeds has been less
than a decade old and its impact is yet to be fully studied.

The roots of Green Revolution, Version 2.0 -- as it is being dubbed
-- lies in the laboratories of some private sector companies and
several government-aided research institutions spread across the

China, in fact, was the first to introduce transgenic crop on its
soil, with viral-resistant tobacco, in the early 1990s, followed by
viral-resistant tomato. The United States was next when Calgene Inc.
introduced its trademarked Flavor Savr tomato in May 1994, which
delays the ripening of the fruit, and thereby increases its shelf
life and commercial value. As of today, barely 10 transgenic crops --
including tomato, cotton, maize, rape seed, potato, squash and papaya
-- have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for
commercial use. There is even a debate whether a genetically
engineered vegetable will remain vegetarian. For, they may contain a
gene from a different species, even animals. Biotechnologists,
however, argue that there are several instances where various unlike
species share the same genetic structure. "If that is the case, what
would you classify yogurt as? Curd is impossible to make without
Lacto Bacillus," says Paresh Verma, director of research at Proagro
Seed Company Ltd.

Scientists, nevertheless, admit that there is, indeed, the fear of
the unknown, due to the introduction of transgenic seeds. Yet, they
feel that this issue can be addressed rather effectively by adhering
strictly to the bio-safety measures prescribed under the Environment
Protection Act. For them, the main argument for continuing with the
research on genetically-modified foods is governed by ground
realities. India's population crossed the one-billion mark recently,
and over the next 25 years, it is expected to overtake that of
China's. To ensure food security, there is no alternative but to
increase the productivity of crops. Since the conventional methods of
improving yield have hit a plateau in several crops, genetic
engineering may be the only beacon of hope.

Issues concerning genetically modified plants have created
controversy and debates globally. If you have any thoughts to share,
visit www.indiaabroad.com

Regulating research in genetically modified food

Numerous multilateral conventions are working at cross purposes on
the issue of transgenic crops

Given the controversy surrounding genetically-modified foods (GMFs)
the world over, it is not surprising that the Union government has in
place an elaborate mechanism to regulate research in the field of
transgenic seeds and crops.
Globally, there are several multilateral agreements and conventions
that address one or the other issue related with GMFs, of which
India, too, is a signatory.

If the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement
under the World Trade Organization looks at the rights of innovators,
the Convention on the International Union for the Protection of New
Varieties of Plants (UPOV) focuses on the plant breeders' rights. Yet
another multilateral forum -- the Convention on Biodiversity -- is
concerned with community rights and suitable compensation for
commercial gains made from the use of genetic resources.
"All these international conventions, in certain clauses, differ from
one another and unless there is uniformity and mutual harmony in all
these conventions, it will be difficult to take care of the interests
of all classes of people through the world," observes P.K. Ghosh,
adviser, Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
In India, the regulatory issues in transgenic plants are covered by
the Environment Protection Act, and fall under the administrative
control of the DBT. Besides, the Ministry of Agriculture and the
Ministry of Environment and Forests also have representation on the
various committees that facilitate and regulate research in the area.
The rules and guidelines framed by the government ensures that a
transgenic seed cannot be commercially used by a farmer unless it
goes through rigorous tests and experiments, with stringent scrutiny
at each stage of development -- from the basic research in
laboratories and greenhouse experiments, to limited trials in
protected fields.

"This process could take between five and 10 years, and it is one of
the most stringent set of rules framed in any country," says Dr.
Manju Sharma, secretary, DBT. According to her, even in the United
States, such approvals take at least five years, and involve the
country's Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environment
Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. She explains
that even before the commencement of research in the area of
transgenics, every institution, private or government-owned, has to
form a biodiversity committee, with a representative from the DBT as

To give an indication of the magnitude of such research being
conducted in the country, Sharma says there are 130 biodiversity
committees that have been formed so far, of which 110 are in
universities or government-aided institutions, while 20 others are in
the private sector. The next stage of research -- green house
experiments -- is cleared by the Review Committee on Genetic
Manipulation, which has, among others, government representatives
from fields like biotechnology and medical research.

The permission for field trials is extended by the Genetic
Engineering Approval Committee, which functions as a statutory body
under the administrative supervision of the Ministry of Environment
and Forests. In addition, the government has also set up a
Monitoring-cum-Evaluation Committee that looks at the progress made
by various research projects and its impact on ecology and the
"There is nothing to worry, if you plan your experiments according to
what has been given in the guidelines. When the release of transgenic
seeds has all these checks and balances, where is the danger, where
is the problem?" queries Sharma. She further contends: "These
guidelines are by far the best and have, in fact, been complimented
even by the USDA."

Nevertheless, during a seminar on GMFs held in Jaipur in March this
year, several consumer activists suggested that the various
legislations concerning the production, trade and consumption of GMFs
need to be harmonized.
Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general, Consumer Unity and Trust
Society, a nongovernmental organization for consumers, told the
seminar that an independent watchdog needed to be established for the
sector so that there is less interference of the polity, and
citizens' interests are protected.
Ghosh also agrees that national laws need to be harmonized. He,
however, feels that since the issues are still in the process of
getting crystallized, most countries will continue to adopt a
cautious, case-by-case approach, for the next few years.

Science and technology behind the insect busters


A transgenic plant can be defined as one which has an alien gene from
another species of living organism implanted into its genome, be it
from a bacteria, an animal or even a human being.
Sounds simple. But that is where a twin challenge lies: One, to
identify the beneficial gene and its properties; and two, to transfer
the gene successfully into the plant.

This is because the structure of a gene -- a complex composition of a
chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, popularly called DNA -- varies
even among like species of living organisms. Therefore, the transfer
of a gene from one species to another requires a fair bit of
ingenuity, particularly in self-pollinating crops like mustard. For
this, the beneficial gene -- say, for the toxin-producing capability
of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which kill a certain class of worms
-- is identified and isolated. Then, the process of transfering the
gene into that of the plant begins.

However, just as humans sometimes reject kidneys transplanted into
them, plants, too, do not accept foreign genes easily. For this,
biotechnologists have at their disposal several tools, of which agro
bacterium tumefaciens and ballistic guns are the ones used most
commonly. The agrobacterium, for example, is an organism which has
natural properties that help it push its genes into those of plants.
Biotechnologists use it as a medium to transplant the beneficial gene
isolated from another specie into the genome of the target plant.

Even after the gene-transfer process is complete, it is possible that
the trait for which the foreign gene was isolated and incorporated
into a plant's genome, remains dormant, or works in an undesirable
For example, it is of no use if the trait from the foreign gene is
for enhancing the protein levels of potatoes, but manifests itself in
the plant's roots. Same is the case if a gene that has been
identified to fight frost, activates itself during normal weather. To
get the traits to activate as desired, biotechnologists resort to a
rather time-consuming process which they call: "Getting the right

Once this process is complete, the plant is ready for further
experiments, first in green houses, then in small test fields, and
finally in larger open areas, before it hits the shops for use by
farmers. In the case of Bt cotton -- which is expected to become the
first transgenic plant to be permitted for use commercially on Indian
soil -- the plant is made to produce a particular toxin. Humans are
not affected by this Bt toxin, since their digestive system contains
acids, whereas, worms belonging to the lepidopterans family produce
alkalies. When these worms eat the leaves, fruits, or vegetables that
have the Bt gene, the toxins produced by the plant, as a result of
the gene, dissolves their digestive system and ultimately kills the

Most of the research in transgenic crops today is being conducted to
induce herbicide-resistance traits in plants, so that immunity is
developed by them during the spraying of pesticides. The introduction
of traits to fight attacks by insects and fungus, as also to enhance
some beneficial properties in a plant, are two other areas on which
several biotechnologists are working.

Arvind Kapoor, managing director of Nunhems Proagro Seeds, a
subsidiary of French biotechnology major Aventis, says the minimum
time taken by research institutions to develop one transgenic seed is
five years, and this can even stretch to 10 years or beyond in
certain cases. It is for this reason that transgenic seeds cost more
than traditional varieties. But this does not seem to stop farmers.
Global sales of transgenic seeds is is estimated to have touched $2.3
billion in 1999, and is projected to reach $25 billion by 2010.

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