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Gene Revolution and Food Security

A revitalised Indian agriculture can be the engine of growth and biotechnology can provide the needed fuel.

Observer of Business and Politics (New Delhi, India)
By C.S. Prakash
March 2, 2000

India's greatest achievement in the past century has been its ability to increase its food production and thus keeping the Malthusian fears at bay. Nevertheless, we still face daunting challenge of hunger, poverty and malnutrition that will only get worse as the population increases in absolute numbers. Recent advances in crop science, however, provide us with a new window of opportunity to deal with the issue of food security. Genetic engineering is clearly the most revolutionary tool to impact agricultural research since the discovery of genetics by Mendel. Sensible integration of biotechnology in research can accelerate the pace of agricultural improvement and is of considerable relevance to an agrarian country like India.

Transforming India's agriculture is critical not only to deal with the issue of hunger and poverty but also to strengthen the sector that is so fundamental to India's existence. The 'green revolution' is showing signs of fatigue and farm productivity increases are now flattening. There are serious constraints to productivity in Indian agriculture because of small holdings, the subsistence nature of farming, vagaries of the weather, limited water, poor land condition and stress factors such as drought, heat and saline soil conditions. Much of the crop yield is lost due to disease, pests, and weeds while a considerable proportion of harvested fruits and vegetables are spoilt during transportation and storage.

There is thus an urgent need to reinvigorate agricultural research to address crop productivity issues by redesigning crop plants to benefit the farmer and the consumer, and also to develop innovative 'value-added' agricultural products to enhance the revenue base of farming. Profitable farming not only enhances the quality of life in rural India but will also help limit the urban sprawl due to migration and its attendant environmental problems. Beyond crop productivity, there is also a need to address the larger food and environmental issues.

A revitalised Indian agriculture can be the engine of growth for the 21st century, and biotechnology can provide the needed fuel. When deployed in a sensible and responsible manner, modern biotechnological tools such as genetic improvement of crops can advance India's agriculture to address 'head-on' the challenge of feeding its increasing population with its limited economic, land and water resources. India cannot afford to lag behind in critically examining these new technologies and making them available to its farmers under suitable safeguards.

Most experts say that the greatest promise of biotechnology is in its application in developing countries like India and China because of their high reliance on agriculture, large farming areas, low crop yield and the urgency for food increase and economic revitalisation. Developing countries such as Mexico, Argentina, China and Chile have already made considerable economic advances by integrating biotechnology into their agricultural programmes. Others such as Cuba, Egypt and South Africa are also following close behind and clearly see biotechnology as a means of advancing their economies in an accelerated manner. India can, therefore, ignore biotechnology only at its own peril.

Biotechnology can be a boon to Indian agriculture in may ways. Crop damage can be minimised through disease- and pest-resistant varieties while reducing the use of chemicals. Conventional plant breeding has little ammunition to deal with these problems in an expedient and effective manner. India also has serious problems of blast in rice, rust in wheat, leaf rust in coffee, viruses in tomato and chillies and leaf spot in groundnut across the country. These problems can be significantly minimised in an ecologically-friendly manner with the development of genetically reprogrammed seeds designed to resist these disease attacks, while minimising or even eliminating costly and hazardous pesticide sprays.

Genetic modification can also address the problems of shoot borers in brinjal and okra, caterpillars in pappadi (Dolichos) beans, and of course, the boll worm in cotton which resulted in the tragic suicides of hundreds of cotton farmers. India is the third largest producer of cotton in the world (after China and the US). Although cotton occupies only 5 per cent of the country's land, nearly 50 per cent of all pesticide used in India is bought by cotton farmers alone at a staggering cost of Rs 16 billion annually and with incalculable impact on the environment and human health.

Development of cotton varieties with resistance to pests thus can enhance the welfare of Indian farmers, while helping both the India economy and its environment. New genome technologies along with bioinformatics will further propel Indian agriculture into a new era where complex traits such as photosynthetic efficiency and crop yield can be enhanced. Geneomic tools with esoteric names such as 'DNA Chips', 'Gene Shuffling' and 'Director Evolution' are already making an impact on biomedical research enabling the discovery of new drugs and rapid disease diagnostics, and will surely impact agricultural research.

With no more arable land available for agricultural expansion in India, enhancing stress tolerance in crop plants will permit productive farming on currently unproductive lands. Abiotic factors such as drought, heat, cold, soil salinity and acidity cripple Indian crops seriously constraining their growth and yield. One could extend the growing season of crops and minimise losses due to environmental factors. The shelf life of fruits and vegetables can be prolonged to reduce losses to food spoilage, expand the market vista and improve food quality.

There has been much human misery caused by hazardous substances in many Indian food crops such as the presence of neurotoxin in kesar dal, cyanide in tapioca, aflatoxins in groundnut and antimetabolites in chickpea, horsegram and sweet potato. Biotechnology has the capability to 'silence' these undesirable traits and thus improve the quality of these 'humble' food crops so critical to the nutrition of disadvantaged and resource-poor consumers.

Prolonged 'vase life' of cut-flowers will help broaden the market for horticulturists, while reducing losses and minimising their dependency on expensive cold storage. Human and livestock health can be improved through crops with enhanced nutritional quality traits such as iron-rice and vitamin A-rich rapeseed oil, and through the production of edible vaccines and other pharmaceutical proteins.

Crops with industrial applications such as those producing enzymes, 'designer' starch and oils, biodegradable plastics and industrial chemicals can also be developed to reinvigorate the Indian economy and create jobs. Crop plants that can clean up soil, water and air through 'phytoremediation' can be developed and planted in critical areas. Trees that grow faster with fewer disease and pest problems can be developed with positive impact both on the rural economy and the environment.

The strategic integration of biotechnology tools into Indian agricultural systems can revolutionise Indian farming and usher in a new era in the countryside. Compared to the 'green revolution', the 'gene revolution' is relatively scale-neutral, benefiting big and small farmers alike. It is also environment friendly. Thus, it can be of great help to the smallest farmer with limited resources, in increasing farm productivity through the availability of improved but powerful seed. It can also reduce his dependency on chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. India unequivocally needs the help of such technologies to march into the next century with a vision for economic upliftment and prosperity for its two-thirds of populace dependent on farming.

Gene Revolution II: Potential benefits, Hypothetical Risks

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

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.


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