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Bringing Practicality to the Biotech Debate

By Willie Vogt
Farm Progress
Thursday, February 1, 2001

C.S. Prakash, a Tuskegee University molecular biologist, has become a de facto evangelist for biotech through his effort to get scientists to sign onto a petition in support of the technology. So far, 3,500 have.

The debate over biotech issues has, until recently, been framed by groups and individuals opposed to the technology. And often little has been heard from the scientific community, but an India-born molecular biologist from Tuskegee University is working to get scientists to speak up and help tell the benefits of biotechnology.

In his quiet, heavily accented voice, C.S. Prakash and his arguments would sound as welcome in a meeting of farmers who want access to the technology as he does in a room full of researchers. He talks about how the technology can be put to use, the potential for new markets and new crops that didn't exist before. He notes that while there are detractors of the technology they may not be aware of the extent to which people have manipulated genes in conventional ways for thousands of years. Prakash, who has seen what happens when government leaders shut the door on trade and technology, knows the benefits of biotech if put to use in developing countries. "In India some past leaders kept a lid on the technology but they want to help the poor. They ended up redistributing poverty," he notes.

Trouble is, a vocal group of detractors living in developed countries is working hard to take away access to that technology, and he's not happy about it. "There are people who are starving because they don't have access to the right technology," he notes. "Biotechnology could offer them ways to improve their standard of living, and for governments to turn away that technology isn't right."

Beyond Golden Rice

Sure, he talks about the now familiar Golden Rice program that someday will yield a rice that carries much more beta carotene (Vitamin A) in each kernel. But he sees other opportunities ranging from plants that can help solve localized environmental problems to crops that keep fresher longer so farmers can boost their income. "About 50% of all crops harvested in India spoil before they make it to market," he notes.

Prakash notes that there are valid ethical discussions that should be conducted regarding the use of biotech in food. As a vegetarian -- his kids aren't -- he questions whether it's a good idea to import genes from animals into crops. "There are already enough problems with public perception of this technology, why would you add more," he comments. "Let's concentrate on the key areas where this technology can be used."

Take environmental remediation. Researchers have identified genes in some plants that would transport salt to a safer places within the plant cell and thus minimizing salt damage to the plant growth. For areas where saline issue are a problem, such food crops can be grown on salty soils such as in coastal areas. He sees a number of areas where the research could offer farmers a big payoff.

A petition to get attention

As the biotech arguments swirled through the press in 1999, Prakash became disturbed. He didn't see enough participation in the debate by scientists who have a better understanding of the underlying technology. That's when he started circulating his petition asking scientists to sign on in support of biotechnology.

And some big names have, including Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution; and James Watson, of Watson and Crick fame - the discoverers of DNA. "I did work to get some 'celebrities' on the petition to draw attention to it," Prakash admits with a sly grin. "But we've got more than 3,500 signatures now and more are interested."

You can take a look at the petition by visiting the Web site for Prakash's organization, the Agbioworld Foundation Inc. http://www.agbioworld.org/

Will this quiet Indian scientist be able to counter the movements of environmental and anti-trade groups? That remains to be seen in the future, but he knows what's at stake and from his perspective it's the future of developing countries where, today, starvation is sadly not uncommon.