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The Bogus Debate on Bioethics

Biotechnology and Develoment Monitor
March, 1997
By Suman Sahai

With genetic engineering, genetic barriers between species are crossed. Especially in Western countries, this phenomenon leads to ethical concerns about biotechnology and its regulation. According to Suman Sahai, ethical concerns are largely a luxury of developed countries. Developing countries should not just follow the moral dilemmas of the North, but balance ethics of biotechnology against ethics of poverty.

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 in India. This debate with its plagiarized metaphors and rhetorics borrowed from the West is not Indian in context or substance, and far from relevant.

The concern of bioethics is essentially a Western phenomenon. The objections to biotechnology in Western societies might be logical for their context and economic situation. These countries have a standard of food availability and choice that perhaps cannot be improved. They even have to spend large sums of money to destroy the mountains of surpluses of fruits and vegetables, the lakes of milk and wine and the stacks of meat and butter. In 1993, it cost the European Union more than US$ 2 billion to destroy the surplus fruit and vegetables in an environmentally and farmer friendly way.

The expressed concerns and dilemmas around biotechnology in Europe might be right in Europe. However, in India we must discuss the ethical aspects of genetics or biotechnology rooted in our own philosophy and religion, reflecting our social and human needs, and resolving our own dilemmas and problems in the way that is right for India. There is little reason for people in food surplus countries to become excited about the biotechnology route to increase the yield of wheat or potato. But can we in India have the same perception? Is it more unethical to interfere in God's work than to allow hunger deaths when these can be prevented?

If there is an outcry in the West against the recombinant bovine growth hormone rBST, which increases milk production in cows, it is understandable for a society that is afloat in an ocean of milk. However, is it logical in India, a country with severe milk shortages and many children who do not get minimal nutrition? Should India with its acute fodder shortage and an average milk production of 2 litres per cow per day, spurn on ethical grounds a technology that has the potential to improve this production level using the same amount of fodder? Is rBST an ethically acceptable product in India? With respect to the last question, there is no reason to anticipate any objection from the Hindu community to the use of rBST. Although the Hindus consider the cow as holy and do not slaughter it, experiments and research involving the cow are acceptable. During the 1970s, for example, the large scale artificial insemination programme using imported sperm was never an issue.

The resistance in some sections of Western countries to the genetically engineered Flavr Savr, a tomato with a delayed post-harvest softening process, is to be seen in the context of the huge piles of tasteless tomatoes produced in intensive cultivation systems in countries such as the Netherlands. In India, post-harvest losses are considerable. Should 60 per cent of the fruit grown in Indiars economically weak hill regions be allowed to rot before reaching the market, or should we try to introduce fruit varieties in which the rotting process can be delayed? Should imported ethical arguments stop us from conducting biotechnological research on this characteristic in apple varieties, and so enhance earnings of hill farmers? Should we confine ourselves to borrowed ethical arguments when it comes to the critical areas of raising agricultural production? What should our ethical considerations be?

Developing countries should harvest the power of science and technology to improve the living conditions of their people. As long as there is acute suffering, hunger, and starvation death, alleviating this should be our most important ethical drive. However,this should be done by adhering to high safety standards, which is in a way also an ethical matter. Genetic engineering has raised complex social issues as well as moral dilemmas. These issues need a sophisticated, reasoned response. It is much too simplistic and inadequate to rely on charged hyperboles and bans forbidding the use of science. The concerns and debates in each society must be specifically relevant to that society and rooted in its needs and in its culture.