By Amrita Nair-Ghaswalla
Genetics is in the news, thanks to the Genome map of human genes. In fact, gene maps already exist for some plants. Channapatna S Prakash, director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at the Tuskegee University, Alabama, USA, and his group have developed the genetic map of the cultivated peanut. That is just one among their many achievements in the field of biotechnology research. He spoke to Amrita Nair-Ghaswalla about the opponents of biotechnology who ignore global hunger.
What is biotechnology (BT) and what are its uses?
In the simplest of terms, it is the modification of any living organism around us to help improve our quality of life. In the modern sense, BT has been around for more than 30 years. Genetic engineering, which is the altering of DNA, has also been around for several years and is no different from what we have been doing for 5,000 years. Only now, the process is more precise and scientific.
Biotechnology can take on world starvation. Research in BT can be used to help feed the world's population, what with more than one billion people starving in the world right now.
Is BT safe? Why do we need to adopt it here?
Yes, it is safe and a tool that we have always used. Cross breeding and hybridisation are age-old techniques farmers and researchers have used for generations to develop new crops or improve existing ones. Today's wheat, sweet corn, tomatoes and virtually all crops on the market are the result of centuries of crossbreeding and hybridisation. Biotechnology builds on the benefits of foods produced through traditional methods by precisely segmenting specific traits, so that benefits can be enhanced.
In India, we are in dire need of an infusion of technology to move from subsistence farming to profitable farming. This could be that technology. The World Bank has predicted that by 2020 India will be the fourth largest economy in the world. India cannot afford to propel itself into a global economic power without first transforming its agriculture into a more productive enterprise. Almost two-thirds of Indians depend on land for their livelihood. A lot of poverty here is due to the sheer unproductive farmland.
Don't you feel modern scientists like the idea of playing God with these developments and are merely tampering with nature?
No, not at all. In fact, the Church of England and the Vatican have both issued statements that there is nothing unnatural about human beings using God-given talents to address human problems. One has to also understand that since the dawn of civilisation, man has tampered with nature. None of the cropland in the world today would survive or be productive in the wild if it was left in its natural state.
Using BT, scientists have developed trees that suck up mercury from the soil. Before this, there was no known way to remove mercury from the soil. The tree releases mercury into the air through its leaves in safe quantities now. And we have developed plants that produce vaccines against rabies and cholera, which afflict millions each year. A new rice strain has the potential to prevent blindness in millions of children whose diets are deficient in Vitamin A. Edible vaccines, delivered in locally grown crops, could do more to eliminate disease than the Red Cross missionaries and the UN task forces combined, at a fraction of the cost.
Shouldn't crops produced through BT be intensely regulated? Are consumers mere guinea pigs for this new technology?
It is really plain and simple. If crops derived through BT were not rigorously tested and found to be safe, they would not be on the market today. Yes, we have to regulate it. We cannot import anything without ensuring that it is safe and sound. Regulators need to be like doctors. They are not here to prevent the medicine from coming, they should make sure that that medicine is safe. BT crops are extensively tested in the laboratory and greenhouse several years prior to small-scale field trials and subsequent large-scale commercialisation. International organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, will not give their blessing unless the improved variety is found to be substantially equivalent to or as safe as the conventionally produced variety. Moreover, the government of India's department of biotechnology and other scientific agencies too have developed a strong and reliable regulatory mechanism to deal with safety issues of genetically improved crops. And no, consuming these products are not capable of generating Frankenstein monsters, as its opponents would have us believe.
Is BT an expensive proposition?
It is not very expensive compared to many other technologies. Again, economies of scale will decide, for a farmer will not grow anything unless it is profitable. They may spend a few more rupees to buy genetically modified (GM) seeds but they will cut down on their purchase of insecticides, which is one of the major benefits. And, more importantly, they will have a choice. No one is going to force the farmers to grow anything. If a farmer doesn't want to grow GM cotton because he has a moral opposition to it or it is not economically viable, he will not do it. But he has to understand, that a competitor who uses this technology will get yields three times higher and will have that much more money coming in.
So it all boils down to profit?
Every industry is driven by profit and farming and medicines are both industries. A farmer wants more money coming out of his farm, a pharma company, out of its lab. Profit is not a dirty word. And genetic engineering should not be seen as any different from other forms of scientific advance.
Who funds most of this research?
Much of the BT research is funded by major corporations worldwide. Multinationals have vast resources with a huge edge in their knowledge base, and can play a constructive role. We must remember that few Indian companies have such resources or a willingness to invest in long term projects with little hope of immediate revenues.
Because technology is transferable, a study used to produce hybrid corn grown in Montana may also be used to improve rice grown in India, where BT can solve many of the problems unique to the Indian ecosystem. We have the means to end hunger on this planet and to feed the world's six billion or even nine billion people. For the well-fed to spearhead fear-based campaigns and suppress research for ideological and pseudo-science reasons, is irresponsible and immoral.