By Graham Fuller
Key movers and shakers in their chosen fields of expertise often visit Australia's most liveable city either as part of a hectic business schedule or, perhaps, during a global campaign designed to draw attention to a specific issue. Famed environmentalist David Suzuki, Goodwill Games sponsor and CNN media mogul Ted Turner, plus Virgin chief Richard Branson have all grabbed their share of limelight after touching down briefly in Brisbane.
This autumn, however, a man with equal claims to fame, but who probably won't ever become a household word, delivered a worthy keynote speech at the Brisbane Institute on the increasingly contentious topic of biotechnology in the food industry. Whether it is the genome theory which has revolutionised biotechnology, the industry is on the move courtesy of international scientists like Dr. Craig Ventner, Dr. Leroy Hood and 'home grown' scientists of equal repute, such as Professor John Mattick.
However, Dr. Channapatna Prakash is at the cutting edge when it comes to promoting discussion on genetically modified organisms. Increasingly he is adopting a pioneer role in furthering the community's perceptions of gene technology in the 21st century.
For the moment, it looks and sounds as though there probably is no more an important industry than biotech. And the Queensland State Government and Brisbane City Council believes its city namesake may have the potential to be the greatest research-oriented biotech commuinity in the country - certainly when factoring in major industry sectors like mining, medicine and agriculture.
None of this probably was news to Dr. Prakash, a man with serious biotechnology credentials - who almost certainly knows that Brisbane's research community has been at the forefront of many developments in a range of biotech areas and is now seeking to champion its biotechnology credentials.
For the record, the current Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology at America's Tuskegee University also serves on the US Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Biotechnology Advisory Committee, plus sits on the Commission on Biotechnology of the International Society for Horticultural Science.
To say Dr. Prakash has an interest in all things related to Biotechnology would be something of an understatement. A fervent columnist on the topic, a leading policy guru on plant technology, and with a special interest in the technique's application in developing countries, his thoughts are pivotal to our awareness of food biotechnology issues around the world.
His Brisbane speech acknowledged the point that societies still exhibit considerable anxiety about the acceptance of genetically modified crops and GM foods, emphasising the need to distinguish between the perceived sks of these crops from contrived and conjectural concerns. The point is well made in an earlier paper, which suggested that the UK, instead of becoming one of the world's leaders in developing biotechnology, today was known worldwide as the nation most responsible for impeding introduction of this technology.
It's certainly not a label that can be tied to Australia in general, and Queensland in particular, which is keenly cultivating a 'SmartState' philosophy through the auspices of the Premier, Peter Beattie and Brisbane Lord Mayor, Jim Soorley.
"Those of us who work in agricultural biotechnology know that it has the potential to solve many of the food production problems of the world, whose population will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 30 years or so," Dr. Prakash said. "Biotechnology can improve nutrition among developing nations. It can help fight disease by delivering vaccines in common foods, such as bananas. It can improve crop yields, thus preventing natural areas from being converted to agriculture to meet global food demand, and it can drastically reduce the use of chemical pesticides.
"Biotechnology has the potential to save and improve millions of lives worldwide," he added. In explaining his work, Dr. Prakash told his audience that the genetic modification of crop plants - essentially, putting one, two or a few genes directly into crop plants - was a radical method. And it also was a new method, mainly - because of the use of recombinant DNA technology. But he made the point it was not a destructive method, suggesting the only things the technique probably would destroy were old pesticide sprayers.
He also said that one of the most important features of genetic modification was its knowledge-based approach. Dr.Prakash underscores the fact the whole genetic modification debate should be looked at from a historical perspective. He said the process of domesticating crop plants was being undertaken all the time. Strawberries never existed 200 years ago, as we see them today. While native Americans ate wild strawberries they were very small and not as sweet. An accidental crossing of a strawberry from Virginia in the United States and from Chile is what gave us the modern strawberry. He make similar comparisons about the evolution of modern wheat plants.
So what benefits can biotechnology bring to Australia, questions Dr. Prakash? He surmises that it will permit modern-day agriculture to reduce pesticide usage levels through, for example, growing more Bt cotton, slash fuel and labour consumption, limit losses to by pests and diseases, and provide a means to improve nutrient efficiency. Direct benefits to the consumers increasingly are being detailed. Evidence already is available that we will be able to improve the nutritional quality of our food by, for example, enhancing vitamin content or increasing the quality of oils in soybeans.
Other value-added benefits attributed to biotechnology centre on the production of pharmaceutical compounds in plants, coming up with a plant that can clean up the environment, as well as provide novel products that will bring additional income dimentions to growers - especially those working in peasant-like farming regimes.
"I think the most important example of the humanitarian application of this technology is the golden rice, engineering the pro-vitamin (beta-carotene) into rice for the first time." Dr. Prakash said. "I think it is a good example of using the technology." Having listed some of the positive issues surrounding biotech, there also are growing concerns about corporate control and related socio-economic implications.
In other words, will it only be rich farmers who can afford the technology? Safety too, is high on the agenda of concerns surrounding the biotechnology debate. The approach adopted by Dr. Prakash is to examine each product on a case-by-case basis. While acknowledging that biotechnology does pose some food safety concerns, he prefers to remain firmly focused on the positive issues relating to biotech.
As a footnote, Dr. Prakash reminded his audience that, historically, there always had been opposition to and apprehension about many different and new technologies. The challenge remainded that of taking a proactive position to ensure that both the benefits and the risks of biotechnology were discussed in a responsible manner. Only then could the industry move ahead. This is one example of an industry in which Brisbane can play an ever-increasing role.
As the president and chairman of the Boeing Corporation, Phil Condit said in a speech in Seattle when addressing the Asia Pacific Cities Summit, an initiative of Lord Mayor Jim Soorley: "Progress is only limited by the inability of people to accept change." Meanwhile, a bullish Premier Beattie has no illusions that the biotechnology revolution currently sweeping the world ultimately will see Queensland become a major player - in line with his 'SmartState' agenda for the future.
The building blocks already are here. Evidence to hand includes some impressive first steps including the establishment of the new Ministry if Innovation and Information Economy, a Bio-Industries Taskforce and a Biotechnology Advisory Council. Pharmaceutical companies - both here and from overseas - already have channelled millions of dollars towards developing the industry. And vital research and development funds have resulted in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience being established at the University of Queensland.
Similar initiatives could result in an adjoining Natural Science Precinct in partnership with the CSIRO. "The CSIRO says Australia leads the world in Biotechnology research," Mr. Beattie said. "And, as part of my government's 'SmartState' strategy, I am determined to make Queensland a major biotechnology hub in the Asia-Pacific."
His words are music to the ears of academics like the vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland, Professor John Hay, who believes that embracing biotechnology industries will play a vital part in shaping our future. He draws attention to the fact that the management of the Australian human genome project is centered in Brisbane - a driving force behind the construction of the joint Institute of Molecular Bioscience. Ultimately, some 700 scientists and researchers will soon be able to call Brisbane their home. The point to make here is that Queensland is taking a lead role in developing Australian scientific infrastructure. Stages two and three of this mammoth venture already are on the drawing boards.
"Initiatives like these are having a transforming effect upon the knowledge economies of Australia - and Queensland is a leading player," Prof Hay said. Victoria's Minister for State Development, John Brumby, acknowledges that biotechnology is the world's fastest-growing industry, but believes there is more than enough room for every Australian State to contribute towards enhancing our position internationally.
"Biotechnology's potential for Australia in huge, especially in terms of all the research, commercialisation and development of products," he said." Mr. Brumby says that while Victoria is in the race with Queensland to develop a top-flight biotechnology industry, healthy competition between the States never hurt anybody. "There's certainly room for Australia to grow the (biotech) industry substantially - in both Queensland and Victoria," he added.
It is against this backdrop that Jim Soorley currently in leading a
Brisbane City Council drive towards implementing recommendations designed
to ensure key locations in Brisbane are part of its growing IT and biotechnology
hub. "The future of Brisbane is exciting of some hard yards are put into
actually getting biotech opportunities off the ground," CEO of the Office
of Economic Development of the city of Brisbane," Richard Joel said. "We
have such an insignificant part of the world market, there is only one
way we can go - and that is up - provided we have all our initiatives
in place," he added.