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August 9, 2000


Biotech Articles from India Abroad -- Part II


Here are more articles from India Abroad. The weekly newspaper on India
from USA has focused its August 4, 2000 issue on agricultural
biotechnology in India. Read it at


'We have adequate checks to prevent disasters'
research in all the fields
of biotechnology, including genetically-modified plants. The
institution also encourages such research and funds projects for
improving the quality and yield of crops.
In the process, explains Dr. Manju Sharma, secretary, DBT, the
department also lays an equal emphasis on bio-safety issues.
Accordingly, the department has not only prescribed detailed
guidelines for the manner in which research should be conducted in
transgenic plants, but also fixed strict norms for ensuring safety
and protection of ecology and the environment, Sharma told India
Abroad. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: The world over, there is an intense debate on the impact of
genetically-modified plants. How does the government look at this
A: I have not come across a single report saying that a human has
died due to the consumption of genetically-modified food. We must
look at the fact that even today, our country continues to have more
than 2.7 million children dying of hunger every day, and 60 percent
of them because of malnutrition. Food security will be a challenge.
The question is: How are we going to tackle this problem? If you look
at genetically-modified plants, there are several positive factors --
yield is better, the nutritional value improves and wastage declines
sharply. What we need to do is to combine The Green Revolution with
Gene Revolution. Of course, we must also take care of the bio-safety
issues and concerns.

Q: How is the issue of bio-safety addressed?
A: We have a three-tier system for allowing research in
genetically-modified seeds. Even the United States Food and Drug
Administration has told me that our guidelines are extremely good;
they are, by far, the best available. In fact, even before an
institution or a company starts its research, it must establish an
internal bio-safety committee, with a representative from the DBT.
Then, from the laboratory tests, green house experiments, limited
field trials to final commercial exploitation, the project faces
strict scrutiny by several expert panels. These include the Review
Committee on Genetic Manipulation, Genetic Engineering Approval
Committee and the Monitoring-cum-Evaluation Committee. Therefore, the
entire process -- from research in laboratories to commercial
exploitation -- takes anywhere between five and seven years. And by
that time, we know quite well what its impact on ecology and the
environment is. So, when the release of the transgenic seed has all
these checks and balances in between, where is the danger, where is
the problem?

Q: There has also been the controversy regarding the use of the
terminator gene. The fear is that farmers will not be able to follow
their standard practice of using a part of their produce as seed for
the next year.
A: There has been a lot of concern on this issue of terminator gene,
particularly in Bangalore. The concept of gene protection technology
is nothing new to the scientific committee. You can use any number of
new technologies in a positive manner, and you can use it negatively.
The idea behind promoting research in this field is to apply our
scientific knowledge for the welfare of humanity. Therefore, when we
received an application for conducting research for developing a
terminator gene, we refused. We cannot take away the plant breeders'

Q: When do you think will the first transgenic crop be allowed to be
commercially exploited?
A: I think, Monsanto's cotton, with the Bacillus thuringiensis gene,
will be the first genetically-modified crop to be allowed commercial
exploitation in the country. Besides, Poagro's mustard is also in
advanced stages of research in limited field trials, so is the case
with a potato variety being developed by the National Center for
Plant Genome Research located at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in

Beware of biological war, warn environmentalists

Vandana Shiva, there is also the moral dilemma whether mankind is
trying to play God by bringing together the genes of two unlike

Even biotechnologists admit that the behavior of transgenic plants in
the open environment cannot be predicted in a generalized way. But
seeing the potential benefits the technology can bring to humankind,
they argue that the potential threats the technology poses can be
addressed by putting in place a stringent regulatory framework and
biosafety norms. However, environmentalists like Vandana Shiva, the
founder of Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology
and Environment, are not ones to buy the arguments put forth by
biotechnologists, particularly those in the private sector.
So vehement is her opposition that she says: "Farmers have been
selling their kidneys to meet their ends. Once genetically-modified
plans are permitted on our soil, they will start selling their
"Apart from some traits from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), Monsanto's
genetically-modified cotton also contains a gene for herbicide
resistance. If cotton farmers use the company's transgenic seed, they
will have to spray their crops with what is called round-up-ready
herbicide, which is manufactured by Monsanto. This will fill their
coffers no doubt, but it has been found that this chemical is
carcinogenic," Shiva told India Abroad.

Monsanto, however, is quick to defend itself against such
allegations. "Monsanto has striven to promote herbicides with an
environment-friendly profile," says Meena Vaidyanathan,
communications manager for Monsanto, adding: "Numerous studies have
indicated that herbicide-tolerant seeds have actually reduced the
usage per unit area, when compared to previously used weed-management

Shiva, nevertheless, has filed a public interest litigation in the
Supreme Court, asking it to prevent the Central government from
granting permission to Monsanto to commercially sell its transgenic
Asked as to why the United States, for example, has permitted the use
of transgenic seeds in such a large scale, she says: "The U.S. spends
barely $1.5 million or so in assessing the risks in the long run,
whereas countries like Germany alone spend around $6 million on
assessing the impact and are very careful."

Environmentalists are also concerned about the biodiversity issues.
For example, the Bt gene, which scientists say has been derived from
"a nontoxic, ubiquitous soil bacteria," is widely used in the field
of transgenics, since it is known to kill lepidopterans -- which
belong to the family of pests that destroy billions of dollars worth
of cotton crop across the globe every year. However, butterflies also
belong to the same genius and if they feed on a transgenic plant with
in-built Bt gene, they can die or their growth can be severely
hampered. This issue caused a major controversy in the U.S. a few
years ago, when environmental activists asked the government to
immediately ban the use of the Bt gene in plants, saying it was
killing rare Monarch butterflies.

Professor Asis Dutta, the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi, who is doing extensive research on transgenic
potatoes, rice, mustard and chick pea, disagrees. "Transgenic crop
resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses are eco-friendly. It is not
true that Bt gene, if introduced in a crop, will kill butterflies. In
fact, the Bt gene confers protection against lepidopteran insects,"
he told India Abroad. There is also the moral dilemma whether mankind
is trying to play God by bringing together the genes of two unlike
species. But, Dutta says: "Hundreds of genes are there that are
equally shared by plants and animals, even by microbes. Thus,
transferring one or multiple genes from one system to another does
not go against nature."

Some scientists, however, do advocate caution. P.K. Ghosh, adviser in
the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) says that the introduction of
an alien gene in a plant "is expected to be manifested in newer
behavioral characteristics, which cannot be predicted over a short
span of time." The worst fear among environmentalists is that
transgenic seeds have the potential to damage the ecology and
environment and could even lead to a biological war. If, for example,
a transgenic seed were to pollinate with a weed, the unwanted plant
can acquire immunity and properties which will be extremely difficult
to contain. But Dutta, who heads a review committee set up by the DBT
to permit research on transgenic seeds, says: "If the
biosafety-safety norms are strictly taken care of, we do not see any
reason why a transgenic crop will be a threat to environment." He
adds: "India cannot afford to ignore the emphasis on transgenic

The Gene Factories

National Center for Plant Genome Research, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, Delhi:

Developing potatoes rich in proteins. Green house
experiments have concluded.

Jawaharlal Nehru University: Transferring Amaranthus gene into rice
to make it rich in protein. Transformation has concluded, laboratory
experiments are underway.
Central Tobacco Research Institute, Rajahmundri: Generating tobacco
plants resistant to pest attack from H.Armigera and S.Litura. Field
trials are on.
Bose Institute, Calcutta: Generating plants resistant to lepidopteran
pests, using Bt toxin gene. Green House trials are underway.
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore: Studying the extent
of transformation in rice using reporter genes like Hph or Gus.
Laboratory experiments are underway.
University of Delhi, South Campus, Delhi: Introducing of Bar, Barnase
and Barstar genes into mustard and rape seeds to make them resistant
to pest attack. Transformation of gene completed, green house trials
are underway after completion of plant transformation.
Developing hygro-pest gus resistant and rice using selectable marker
genes. Gene regulation studies and transformations completed. Limited
laboratory experiments are to commence.
National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow: Generating cotton
resistant to lepidopteran pests using Bt toxin gene. Laboratory
transformations of the gene are in progress.
Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Shillong: Imparting
lepidopteran resistance to Rice. Transformations are in progress.
Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi: Imparting pepidopteran
pest resistance to brinjal (egg plant), tomatoes, cauliflower and
mustard, using Bt toxin gene.
Central Potato Research Institute, Shimla: Generating plants
resistant to worms, using the Bt toxin gene. Transformation has been
completed, green house trials are underway.
Proagro Seed Company Ltd., Badshahpur: Developing better hybrid
cultivars of mustard and brassica using Barstar, Barnase and Bar that
are suited for local conditions. Field trials underway in multiple
locations, including Badshahpur.
Developing tomatoes resistant to pests using the Cry1A(b) gene.
Transformation completed, green house experiments are underway.
Developing brinjals (egg plant) resistant to lepidopteran worms.
Transformation completed, green house experiments are in progress.
Developing hybrid cultivars of cauliflower suited for local
conditions using Barnase, Barstar and Bar genes. Transformation
completed, glass house experiments are in progress.
Developing cauliflower resistant to pests. Transformation concluded,
glass house experiments are underway.
Developing cabbage resistant to lepidopteran pests using Cry-IA(c)
gene. Glass house experiments are in progress.
Mahyco, a part of the United States-based Monsanto, Mumbai:
Developing cotton resistant to lepidopteran pests. Limited field
trials have concluded and the research approved. Large-scale field
trials are to begin.
Monsanto, Bangalore: Develop rice, sugarcane and some ornamental
plants with resistance to pests and insects, mainly using Bt toxin
Monsanto, Mumbai: Application filed with the Department of
Biotechnology to import a strain of soybean developed at one of its
facilities outside the country, so that further experiments can be
undertaken to make cultivars suited for local cultivation.
Rallis India Ltd., Bangalore: Developing chillies, bell peppers and
tomatoes resistant to lepidopteran, coleopteran and homopteran pests.
Transformation experiments concluded. Green House experiments are to
Tata Energy Research Institute, Delhi: Imparting insect resistance to
mustard using Bt toxin gene. Transformation concluded.
SPIC Science Foundation: Developing insect resistance in rice.
Transformation concluded.
(Compiled by Arvind Padmanabhan)