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Bio Illogical: Plant Breeds No Threat to Third World

The Statesman (Calcutta, India)
July 5, 1999
By Dr C. S. Prakash

While biodiversity is the buzzword invoked by environmental activists these days, agricultural biotechnology and plant breeding enterprises have always been firmly rooted in biodiversity. The existence of genetic variation in crop plants is the platform on which all crop improvement activity is built. Crop scientists have long recognised the value of biodiversity. They also understand that its benefit can only be realised by utilising existing genetic variations to develop useful crop varieties - and not by the invention of reactive rheto-ric such as "biopiracy", "biosurveillance" and "bioplunder" that one often reads in the writings of armchair pundits or activists. Crop and forest biodiversity is under far more threat today from other human activities necessitated by population pressures such as increasing urbanisation and clearing of forests, than from improved crop varieties, be they conventional or from the use of biotechnology techniques.


The preservation of biodiversity will be critical to the sustained success of agriculture. Increasing economic growth spurred by genetically improved crops will provide much-needed resources in the efforts to conserve biodiversity. Genetically improved crops are no more a threat to biodiversity than conventionally bred crops and, in fact, are even better as they exert less pressure to expand the area under agriculture because of their high productivity. Further, improved tools such as cryopreservation developed by biotechnologists will help in the ex-situ preservation of biodiversity, while creative techniques such as gene shuffling will create more biodiversity and perhaps even recreate extinct crop traits. Finally, molecular biology techniques such as the use of DNA markers and genomics are providing valuable insights into the dynamics of biodiversity in crop plants and thus helping our efforts to understand crop evolution and relatedness between different varieties, thus enabling the intelligent use of the available biodiversity. Why should Indian farmers be forced to grow less productive varieties in the name of biodiversity ("museum keepers of obsolete varieties") as David Wood of England asked recently in the journal Nature when technological advances can provide more choices not only to advance their farm productivity but also foster the valuable diversity of crop plants? As many of the genetically improved crops likely to be introduced into India involve partnerships with multinational and private seed companies, a frequent criticism one hears is that these companies will try to dominate Indian agriculture. This is a paternalistic and patronising argument. It is also insulting to the 100 million Indian farmers to suggest that somehow multinational and private seen companies will enslave them with their seeds. It is also insulting to one strong biotechnology regulatory system developed by the department of biotechnology of the Government of India to spread rumours that new, untested technologies are being introduced clandestinely into the country.


Further, no company (Indian or otherwise) can afford to run its business in a manner that is inconsistent with the welfare and success of the society in which it operates. Infusion of global talent, capital and technology can only help Indian agriculture. It can also energise the sector with more competition and promote better products and prices for the consumer. High technology ventures can also help slow down "brain drain" or reverse it, as is happening in the computer industry. It is interesting to note that some of the companies singled out for attack in India have attracted dozens of expatriate Indians settled abroad and are using their talent and training to advance agriculture for the benefit of the world. The Government of India's department of biotechnology and other scientific agencies have done admirable work to deal with safety issues of genetically improved crops by developing a strong, reliable and trustworthy regulatory mechanism. The existing biosafety framework now requires that all genetically modified organisms must undergo a rigorous review and safety assessment prior to their import, field-testing or release. The Indian public has a right to be concerned about the possible impact of genetically improved crops on the environment and human health. The government should also enhance its legal system by instituting penalties for those who do not follow the regulations, strengthen and enforce its anti-trust laws to prevent monopolies and impose product-liability laws to force corporate responsibility. Scientists and companies involved in genetically improved crop development, on their part, have an obligation to be transparent about their affairs and make efforts to communicate with farmers and the public about the nature of their products and any inherent risks they pose.


Multinational companies have vast resources with a huge edge in their knowledge base, and can play a constructive role in India's progress. Few Indian companies have such resources or a willingness to invest in long-term projects with little hope of immediate revenues, in the face of political and economic uncertainty. The multinational biotech companies, on their part, should soften their position on intellectual property by providing "royalty-free" licensing of their core technologies for use by public institutions such as ICAR on non-commercial and orphan crops of importance to Indian farmers and consumers such as bajra, thur dal, horsegram and ragi. Further, these companies should consider voluntarily establishing a trust fund from the profits generated by genetically improved crops to promote biodiversity conservation and public awareness of biotechnology. There is also a need to foster research into the social, ethical, economic and environmental impact of emerging technologies in agriculture as this will not only help predict any negative ramifications of such interventions, but also evolve strategies to deal with them.

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The author is Professor of Biotechnology, Tuskegee University.