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Gene Revolution-II: Potential Benefits, Hypothetical Risks

Observer of Business and Politics
March 3, 2000
By C. S. Prakash

While most scientists and policy-makers recognise that biotechnology is not a solution 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. 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.

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 crop plants 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 the non-acceptance of biotechnology when compared to the miniscule risks posed by genetically improved crops. The enormous potential benefits from these crops, therefore, far outweigh any hypothetical risks posed their use.

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 worldwide 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, 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 plant (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.

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 help create more biodiversity and perhaps even recreate extinct crop traits. 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.

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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Prof Prakash is Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research, Tuskegee University (the US).