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TITLE:  Don't denounce biotech
SOURCE: Deccan Herald, Bangalore, India
DATE:   July 6, 1999

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DON'T DENOUNCE BIOTECH

C. S. PRAKASH of Tuskegee University [USA], writes that in
looking at recent developments in India, I am struck by how a
small group of activists opposed to biotechnology have been
making headlines in India. They have gone on the warpath against
genetically improved crops. They are sowing the seeds of fear in
the minds of the Indian public through well-orchestrated
campaigns, and attempting to intimidate and influence policy
makers by twisting facts about biotechnology and vilifying its
proponents. Test trials of genetically improved cotton have been
burnt down without regard to what their farmer owners think,
amidst relentless rumour campaigns suggesting that multinational
seed companies are conspiring to dominate India's agriculture.

These self-styled "eco-terrorists" with their anti-science and
anti-technology agenda seem bent on reversing India's path to
agricultural progress and ensuring that Indian farmers are
deprived of the latest technological developments. They are
clearly hypocritical in their stance because while personally
enjoying the technological innovations from the West they are out
to deny the Indian farmer the most radical technology that could
help him make a quantum leap over his handicaps and transform
life for him and his family in less than a generation.

Many of these activists in India have strong links with
environmental group such as Greenpeace. Their opposition to
biotechnology in India is self serving and is clearly against the
national interests of India. For instance, the Rural Advancement
Foundation International (RAFI) of Canada is at the forefront in
opposing biotechnology in developing countries and is arduously
supporting groups opposed to biotechnology in India. David Wood
of England wrote recently in the prestigious science journal
Nature that the primary goal of RAFI is to protect the grain
exports of North American farmers, and by actively blocking
farmers in developing countries like India from getting access to
biotechnology, RAFI strives to maintain the dominance of the West
in the grain trade. Those in India aligning with such vested
interests from overseas are inadvertently and unthinkingly (I
hope) hurting India's prospects of becoming an agricultural
superpower in the next century.

These environmental activists have been invoking flawed
philosophical, ethical and even technological arguments to
buttress their case and promote the hidden agenda of vested
interests in the West. They use selective or fictitious data to
spread false information and denigrate biotechnology in a very
articulate and convincing manner. Unfortunately, the Indian
press, some policymakers and even intellectuals have accepted
these arguments at face value without questioning the rationale
or motives behind them.

When asked recently in a Deccan Herald interview (February 7,
1999) as to what alternatives would she propose to the Indian
farmer in lieu of biotechnology, a well-known activist from New
Delhi mentioned biodiversity intensification, ecological
intensification, and further reduction of Indian farm size (!)
along with terms like 'ontological schizhoprenia'. These
activists with their patronising attitudes and surreptitious
links to Western leftist organisations have little contact with
grassroots Indian farmers and propose no workable alternatives to
the technological solutions they vehemently oppose. They are
clearly not the voices of India's vast farming community.

While Western nations like England or Switzerland can sustain the
luxury of ignoring crop biotechnology without compromising their
high standard of living, India cannot afford to do that with its
large agricultural sector, low rural income and huge population.
Without strong scientific assistance to help increase their farm
productivity, our farmers will continue to remain an underclass
of Indian society. Activists opposed to biotechnology will thus
reinforce this status and perpetuate the entrenched urban
hierarchy in India.

Unfortunately, the anti-science and anti-biotechnology campaigns
launched by self- styled 'bio-vigilantes' seems to have impacted
public opinion in India. Even responsible individuals have come
out with rather irresponsible statements. For instance, Dr P. M.
Bhargava, the noted molecular biologist who founded the Centre
for Cell and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, said recently that
suicides by farmers last year were a conspiracy by multinational
companies and called for a moratorium on genetic engineering!

While most scientists and policy-makers recognise that
biotechnology is not a panacea 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. This is clearly illustrated by the
reluctance of even industrialised nations, with the horrors of
Hiroshima in mind, to accept irradiated food although clearly
such food poses no danger and can save lives lost because of
contaminated meat products. If the 'electric chair' had been the
first product of the invention of the electricity, then we would
have felt uneasy every time we switched on an electric light!
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. As one wise person put it "A man who has food
has several problems. A man without food has only one". 



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