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Huge Potential of Genetically Improved Plants Outweighs Hypothetical Risks

Financial Express (India)
May 31, 1999
By Dr C. S. Prakash

Looking at the recent developments in India from a Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research that I head in an American campus (and there are many like me in biotechnology in US academia and the biotech industry), I am struck by how a small group of Indian activists (with strong Western connections) opposed to biotechnology have been making headlines virtually unopposed. They are on the warpath against genetically improved crops. And through well-orchestrated campaigns are sowing the seeds of fear in the minds of the Indian public.

Their goal is clearly to intimidate policy makers by twisting facts about biotechnology and vilifying its proponents. Fields trials of genetically improved crops have been burnt without regard to the views of their farmer-owners and some of the most absurd and wild rumours about the risks of biotechnology have been meticulously spread with appropriate sound bites.Strangely, neither the media nor intellectuals from outside the scientific community have chosen to challenge thebasis of such claims. Risk is essentially a function of the nature of a product, and not the process employed in developing the product, according to Andre de Kathan of the University of Hanover, Germany.

Products from biotechnology are no less safe than traditionally bred crops. In fact, they may even be safer as they represent small, precise alterations with the introduction of genes whose biology is well understood. Often these genes are derived from other food crops.

Genetically improved products are subjected to intensive testing, while conventional varieties have never been subjected to any such regulation for food safety or environmental impact. Traditional methods of developing crops involve wild crosses with weedy relatives of crop plants. Hundreds of unknown genes,of whose traits we have little knowledge, are introduced into these food crops through these conventional plant breeding methods.

Many characteristics such as disease and pest resistance have been routinely introduced into cropplants from their weedy and distant relatives over hundreds of years. These have posed no serious threat to the environment in terms of crop invasiveness, gene flow to weeds or the biodiversity. Yet, some of these fears are invoked for genetically-improved crops which possess similar traits, but are developed through a rapid genetic modification processes.

Thousands of new plants have been introduced into India since Vasco da Gama, and no one now questions the invaluable impact these exotic introductions have made on Indian agriculture, food habits and the economy. These include chilli, wheat, potato, tomato, cabbage, groundnut, cowpea, apple, grape, eucalyptus, rose and countless ornamentals. Genetically improved crops, on the other hand, do not involve any such wholesale introduction of thousands of new genes through new plants, only alteration of just one or two genes with known traits in the already popular Indian crop varieties.

There is, therefore, a far greater risk to the Indian society from thenon-acceptance of biotechnology when compared to the minuscule risks posed by genetically improved crops. The enormous potential benefits from these crops therefore far outweigh any hypothetical risks posed by their use.Genetically improved plants are safe Thousands of field tests conducted so far on various genetically improved crops with more than one hundred new traits, or their commercial planting on 28 million hectares world-wide have failed to provide any serious evidence of food safety or environmental concern. Gene altered corn and soyabean products, including baby food, have now found their way into nearly 4,000 food products in American supermarkets. Yet, not a single issue of food safety has been reported. It should be pointed out that American standards of food safety are the highest in the world. The regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has one of the world's strictest standards and thus enjoys considerable public trust.

Many genes used in genetically improved crops, such including the Bt gene isolated from soil bacteria, have a long history of perfect safety and ecological record. Further, many genes introduced into crop plants (such as those used to develop slow ripening tomato) are derived essentially from the same crop but inserted in a reverse manner to silence the undesirable genes, so as to slow down the ripening in tomato or prevent cyanide production in cassava.

This is not to say that genetically improved crops will not have any unforeseen effects. But the possible negative effects of each crop should be scientifically evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and the regulatory system should evolve over time based on new knowledge. As India is the centre of the origin of many crop plants with many wild relatives, we should be prudent to minimise any potential gene transfer to weedy relatives.

Many of these concerns are technical issues that could be addressed through appropriate research, and not through emotive debates or militant activism.A frequent fear invokedagainst the use of genetically improved crops is their possible impact on the environment. What can be more environmentally friendly than a crop variety that requires little or no pesticide? How can a crop variety that is three-fold productive, and thus decreases the pressure to cut down forest lands for agricultural expansion, be against nature? Yet, one hears that 'biotechnology is incompatible with nature' and is 'not natural'. We need to remember that agriculture is inherently an unnatural activity. Human beings since the dawn of civilisation have been meddling with nature to provide the needed food, fibre and shelter for the sustenance of humankind. None of our present day crops resemble their weedy relatives. Nor would they survive in the wild as they have all been altered substantially through selection by farmers over thousands of years to be more adaptable and productive.

A similar situation exists with livestock and poultry and, for that matter, even our pets like dogs and cats. Geneticallyimproved crops are a logical extension of this human activity, and thus are no more unnatural than what has been practiced for aeons. Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign, New Delhi has rightly reminded us that we should harvest the power of science and technology to improve the living conditions of our people and our most ethical drive is in alleviating poverty, hunger and starvation death.

What the experts say

Norman Borlaug, Nobel Laureate and 'Father' of Green Revolution: "The world has the technology - either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline - to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this technology. Extremists in the environmental movement from rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks."n Jimmy Carter, ex-President of the USA: "Instead of reaping the benefits of decades of discovery and research, people from Africa and South-east Asia will remainprisoners of outdated technology. Their countries could suffer greatly for years to come. It is crucial that they reject the propaganda of extremist groups before it is too late."

Ismail Serageldin, World Bank, CGIAR: "Biotechnology will be a crucial part of expanding agricultural productivity in the 21st century. If safely deployed, it could be a tremendous help in meeting the challenge of feeding an additional three billion human beings, 95 percent of them in the poor developing countries, on the same amount of land and water currently available."

The World Bank Panel that included Prof MS Swaminathan: "Transgenic crops that are developed and used wisely can be very helpful, and may prove essential, to world food production and agricultural sustainability". Suman Sahai, Gene Campaign, New Delhi: "Keeping pace with the growing importance of biotechnology and its potential to address some of our urgent food and health care needs, a spurious and somewhat bogus debate on bioethics has been started inIndia. This debate with its plagiarised metaphors and rhetoric borrowed from the West is not Indian in context or substance, and far from relevant."

G Padmanabhan, Ex-Director, Indian Institute of Science: "Transgenic technology and conventional wisdom need not be considered as mutually exclusive. The country needs dynamic entrepreneurship leadership in agriculture and no one needs to feel exploited. There is a need for scientists, enlightened administrators, progressive farmers and people's representatives to come together to spread the correct message about transgenic technology."

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The author is professor and director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, Alabama, USA. He is the founder of the 'Society for Biotechnology' in Bangalore, and is among the founding members of an Internet-based network called PBASIO - the 'Plant Biotechnologists and Agricultural Scientists of Indian Origin' which has more than 800 members and promotes discussion on agbiotech related issues concerning India.