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TITLE:  Biotech: No panacea for farm sector's ills
SOURCE: The Hindu Business Line, India, by K. P. Prabhakaran Nair
        http://thehindubusinessline.com/2003/04/15/stories/
2003041500090800.htm
DATE:   Apr 15, 2003

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Biotech: No panacea for farm sector's ills

NOT long ago a Chennai-based privately funded Foundation made what was
called the "Chennai Declaration": that there is an imminent need for the
public acceptance of biotechnology.

A little before this, the newly appointed Director General of the Indian
Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), endorsed the need for the
country to take the "biotechnology route" to enhance crop production,
during his first press meet.

And, to cap it all, Dr Craig Venter, the "author-discoverer" of the human
genome, heralding the "genome revolution", was in New Delhi recently to
attend the "Knowledge Millennium III: The Business of Biotechnology"
organised by Assocham, and to tell Indians that biotechnology is "the
need of the hour".

India is thus being hailed as the next destination, after the US, to see
all the "biotech action", and there is talk of "limitless riches", as
someone colourfully put it, in the making. Indeed, Indian farmers are
being told that their salvation lies in biotechnology.

This article is not meant to repudiate or endorse what is increasingly
being heard on biotechnology being the panacea for the ills of Indian
agriculture, but to make the plea that before we take a reckless plunge,
it might be educative to pause and ponder.

Not long ago the country was witness to the hysteria over the "Bollgard"
cotton, peddled by the MNC Monsanto and its native collaborator Mahyco.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), supported by the ICAR,
cleared the controversial cotton on March 26, 2002.

When the Bollgard cotton was cleared for commercial cultivation in some
parts of India, this author had cautioned against the move ("Bt cotton:
Bane or Boon?", Business Line, April 9, 2002) and outlined a strategy for
follow-up monitoring.

Nearly 50,000 farmers had sown the seeds, covering close to 40,000
hectares. Notwithstanding Mahyco's claims to the contrary, several
farmers felt let down by the crop's performance and sued the Maharashtra
government and the Monsanto Corporation for Rs 500 crore in damage. A
packet of Bollgard cotton was priced at Rs 1,600 for 450 gm, and the
Mahayco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMB), the50:50 joint venture, walked away
with Rs 16.8 crore from sale of seeds.

At the time the Bollgard seed was touted as the wonder solution for
cotton farmers distraught with the Bollworm menace, the MNC had claimed
"superior" yield as a bonus, in addition to resistance to the insect
pest. Interestingly, these claims have been belied, and whenever the crop
failed, it was attributed to the "adverse" weather conditions.

The most startling evidence of the failure of Bt cotton comes from a
report commissioned by the GEAC, following widespread complaints of
sudden failure of the crop in the Mandaleshwar block in Khargone district
in Madhya Pradesh.

GEAC sent a seven-member team to investigate the crop failure. The team
comprised a cotton physiologist, cotton pathologist, cotton agronomist,
cotton soil scientist, cotton entomologist and a cotton plant breeder -
the full complement of cotton sciences - and it reported large-scale
wilting and drying of the plant at the peak boll formation stage,
accompanied by drooping leaves, leaf shedding and bursting of bolls. The
"refuge" plants of cotton (non Bt variety) planted on the borders of the
Bt cotton were far less affected. The possibility of a soil fungus
Fusarium or some soil nutrient deficiency as the cause for the wilting
was ruled out through controlled laboratory experiments.

The scientific team pointedly suggested in its report that "a genetically
controlled physiological disorder" might have triggered the widespread
wilting and the drought was not the culprit as the MNC was trying to make out.

Here, there is a parallel between what conventional plant breeders
achieved more than four decades ago - which ushered in the so-called
"Green Revolution" - through classical hybridisation process, where
intra-specific crosses were made and the resultant "miracle" dwarf
varieties of wheat and rice were obtained.

The main difference between what the classical plant breeders of the
1960s did and what the genetic engineers are trying to do now is that
while the former looked at the entire plant, the latter are only looking
at a single gene, that could reportedly possess a specific trait.

Even in the latter, the newly-bred plant variety might break down in
respect of its acquired trait over the years. Instances are many of the
new miracle varieties of wheat and rice succumbing to pests and diseases.

This shows that what the classical plant breeders did and what the new
breed of genetic engineers are doing are both at the periphery of our
true understanding of what, in simple terms, could be called "life". But
two crucial things remain unsaid.

First, none of the agencies engaged in evolving the genetically
engineered crops bother to provide information on the biochemical
activity of the alien gene, either of animal origin, as in the case of
the Bt cotton - where the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally
occurring bacterium in soil that produces the organic toxin, was utilised
- or of plant origin, as in the case of "Roundup Ready" wheat that
Monsanto is readying for commercial cultivation.

Such information would have helped track unexpected impacts, as has been
observed with the sudden collapse of the Bt cotton in many farmers'
fields in India or the transformation of the entire genome of the
transgenic Monsanto soybean, resulting in potentially harmful proteins
after inserting an alien gene, as observed recently in a case study in
Belgium.

There are other reports of such abnormal transformations taking place in
transgenic rice leading to unpredictable consequences.

Admittedly, there are disturbing lacunae in the understanding of genetic
engineering, because those involved in the enterprise have an over-
simplistic view of the centrality of molecular biology.

I wish to add, with humility, that those involved in the genetic
engineering race are far too ill-equipped to strike at the root of
understanding, because that is a far more demanding academic task, than
merely isolating and inserting a gene from an alien organism, either a
bacterium or plant, into a different host.

The abnormal field variations that we observe in the transgenic plant can
all be traced to the little understood and far too little explored
ribonucleic acid (RNA) based networks of gene regulation.

These are critical to our true understanding of these phenotypic
observations in the field, as in the case of plants, or instances of
enlarged hearts, gastric ulcers, arthritis and renal disease in gene-
modified pigs or the most recent instance of a child, being treated with
gene therapy for the Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID),
developing leukaemia (Nature, December 2002).

What does all this show? That we must abandon biotechnological research?
Far from it. On balance, if properly directed, the benefits might far
outweigh the risks. But there are 'ifs'. Indeed, very large 'ifs'.

If only our scientists equip themselves with superlative technical
skills, backed by unimpeachable academic credentials and admirably
motivated by visionary leadership and supported with almost limitless funding!

Sophisticated instrumentation and an army of "armchair" scientists is no
answer to unravelling the true story of the gene. Within the developing
world, India has the largest public-funded R&D establishment, with only
China and Brazil showing comparable levels of expenditure and staff size,
but with much to their credit than we have achieved!

Colossal amounts are being spent by the Department of Biotechnology, the
monolith ICAR, 31 agricultural universities spread across the length and
breadth of this country (some engaged in cotton "research" as well), 81
national research centres (some of which also do research on cotton), the
apex Central Cotton Research Institute (doing exclusive research on
cotton), the endless commissions on agriculture (the most recent being
the National Commission on Agriculture); Parliamentary panels,
"brainstorming" by the "super scientist turned administrators", Planning
Commission meetings, and so on. Despite all this, why could India not
dream up a Bt cotton of its own, which could have, by hindsight, pre-
empted the American MNCs' onslaught on Indian soil? All these are very
uncomfortable questions for which we have no answers.

If sophisticated instrumentation and fatly-paid scientific staff were the
answers, the country would not have seen the "Green Revolution" fall on
its face, with degraded soils, drying aquifers and vanishing biodiversity.

More than 20 per cent of the soil of Punjab and Haryana, the cradle of
the Green Revolution, is beyond repair, where it will be a Herculean task
to grow even a blade of grass again! The process fattened the farm lobby
while the less-than-one-acre poor farmer was left out in the cold. No
Green Revolution ever happened on his tiny patch of land.

The country seems headed on a similar course, where profit is the driving
force rather than public good. When will we learn to place life firmly
before profit?

(The author is a senior fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.)