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Don't Denounce Biotech

Deccan Herald (Bangalore, India)
July 6, 1999
By Dr C. S. Prakash

Looking at recent developments in India, I am struck by how a small group of activists opposed to biotechnology have been making headlines in India. They have gone on the warpath against genetically improved crops. They are sowing the seeds of fear in the minds of the Indian public through well-orchestrated campaigns, and attempting to intimidate and influence policy makers by twisting facts about biotechnology and vilifying its proponents. Test trials of genetically improved cotton have been burnt down without regard to what their farmer owners think, amidst relentless rumour campaigns suggesting that multinational seed companies are conspiring to dominate India's agriculture.

These self-styled "eco-terrorists" with their anti-science and anti-technology agenda seem bent on reversing India's path to agricultural progress and ensuring that Indian farmers are deprived of the latest technological developments. They are clearly hypocritical in their stance because while personally enjoying the technological innovations from the West they are out to deny the Indian farmer the most radical technology that could help him make a quantum leap over his handicaps and transform life for him and his family in less than a generation.

Many of these activists in India have strong links with environmental group such as Greenpeace. Their opposition to biotechnology in India is self serving and is clearly against the national interests of India. For instance, the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) of Canada is at the forefront in opposing biotechnology in developing countries and is arduously supporting groups opposed to biotechnology in India. David Wood of England wrote recently in the prestigious science journal Nature that the primary goal of RAFI is to protect the grain exports of North American farmers, and by actively blocking farmers in developing countries like India from getting access to biotechnology, RAFI strives to maintain the dominance of the West in the grain trade. Those in India aligning with such vested interests from overseas are inadvertently and unthinkingly (I hope) hurting India's prospects of becoming an agricultural superpower in the next century.

These environmental activists have been invoking flawed philosophical, ethical and even technological arguments to buttress their case and promote the hidden agenda of vested interests in the West. They use selective or fictitious data to spread false information and denigrate biotechnology in a very articulate and convincing manner. Unfortunately, the Indian press, some policymakers and even intellectuals have accepted these arguments at face value without questioning the rationale or motives behind them.

When asked recently in a Deccan Herald interview (February 7, 1999) as to what alternatives would she propose to the Indian farmer in lieu of biotechnology, a well-known activist from New Delhi mentioned biodiversity intensification, ecological intensification, and further reduction of Indian farm size (!) along with terms like 'ontological schizhoprenia'. These activists with their patronising attitudes and surreptitious links to Western leftist organisations have little contact with grassroots Indian farmers and propose no workable alternatives to the technological solutions they vehemently oppose. They are clearly not the voices of India's vast farming community.

While Western nations like England or Switzerland can sustain the luxury of ignoring crop biotechnology without compromising their high standard of living, India cannot afford to do that with its large agricultural sector, low rural income and huge population. Without strong scientific assistance to help increase their farm productivity, our farmers will continue to remain an underclass of Indian society. Activists opposed to biotechnology will thus reinforce this status and perpetuate the entrenched urban-hierarchy in India.

Unfortunately, the anti-science and anti-biotechnology campaigns launched by self- styled 'bio-vigilantes' seems to have impacted public opinion in India. Even responsible individuals have come out with rather irresponsible statements. For instance, Dr P. M. Bhargava, the noted molecular biologist who founded the Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, said recently that suicides by farmers last year were a conspiracy by multinational companies and called for a moratorium on genetic engineering!

Any Human Activity has Inherent Risks

While most scientists and policy-makers recognise that biotechnology is not a panacea for all food production problems in India, it is the single most powerful tool India has right now to address this problem. There are risks inherent in any technological intervention. Human beings down the centuries have learnt to weigh the perceived and real risks against the benefits of emerging technologies, and have responsibly integrated these to foster progress. For instance, the use of electricity, automobiles, air travel and even immunisation all involve some risks, but this has not prevented humankind from benefiting from them.

But public acceptance is driven by perception of the risk rather than the physical reality. This is clearly illustrated by the reluctance of even industrialised nations, with the horrors of Hiroshima in mind, to accept irradiated food although clearly such food poses no danger and can save lives lost because of contaminated meat products. If the 'electric chair' had been the first product of the invention of the electricity, then we would have felt uneasy every time we switched on an electric light!

What we need is a sensible and responsible approach to integrating biotechnology in Indian agricultural research while ensuring that any risk posed by this technology is kept to a minimum through rigorous scientific approach. We do not need militant and violent paths in keeping the biotechnology away from Indians as this will only ensure continued backwardness of our Indian agriculture. As one wise person put it "A man who has food has several problems. A man without food has only one".

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C. S. Prakash is at Tuskegee University, USA.