New threats and tasks

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan addressing the inaugural function of the international dialogue on the "Legacy of Watson and Crick" at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. -

Agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan addressing the inaugural function of the international dialogue on the "Legacy of Watson and Crick" at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. -

In the context of the legacy of Watson and Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA 50 years ago, a dialogue on developments and trends in the discipline.

IN mid-January, the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation celebrated 50 years of the landmark discovery by James Dewey Watson and Francis Harry Crick of the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the building block of plants and animals. At an inter-disciplinary dialogue, scientists, researchers, industrialists, policy-makers, environmentalists, legal experts, government officials and mediapersons discussed the developments, concerns and contradictions spawned by the "legacy of Watson and Crick", and came out with the Chennai Declaration that included a draft National Food and Agricultural Biotechnology Policy.

The past century was witness to a breathtaking array of discoveries in biological sciences, particularly in molecular biology, the science that seeks to understand the molecular basis of heredity, genetic variation and the expression patterns of individual units of heredity called genes. Today's genetic science and techniques can be traced back to Mendel's Inheritance Study of 1865. But the real impetus came after Watson and Crick discovered the DNA structure in 1953. This was followed by Protein synthesis studies of the 1960s and developments in the fields of tissue culture in the 1970s, molecular markers in the 1980s, genetic engineering and transgenics in the 1990s, and genomics in the new millennium - all results of an orchestrated development of biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology.

All technologies that resorted to genetic manipulation were given the generic term, biotechnology. The area that has evoked the most concern is recombinant DNA technology or genetic engineering, which enables the creation of novel combinations through parasexual methods of transfer of genetic material - a field of study that gathered momentum with the discovery of the double helix structure.

As much as it has benefited human beings, biotechnology has raised concerns, largely arising from its applications. Former Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Assistant Director-General R.B. Singh, points to food safety and human health, impact of environment, socio-economic issues and ethical concerns as being the foremost among these.

According to agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the apprehensions relating to molecular genetics and genetic engineering come under five broad categories: ethical implications, control (of food security falling in the hands of a few transnational corporations), access (issues relating to intellectual property rights), environment (impact on biodiversity, possibility of genetic pollution in the centres of origin and emergence of `super weeds'), and human and animal health (food safety and allergenicity).

At the Chennai dialogue, the focus was on ethical issues. The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) representative of the Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Communication and Information, Dr. M. Tawfik said: "There can be no progress for humanity in a world where science and technology develop independently of all ethical imperatives." Civil society organisations had articulated the fear at the World Food Summit +5 meeting held in Rome last year that genetically modified organisms represent a threat to family farmers and that they will in particular affect the rural poor who cannot afford the costly alternative.

Yet, argued participants at the Chennai dialogue, biotechnology is the only way we can challenge the future of farming, particularly in the context of growing water scarcity, falling productivity and shrinking arable land. Said one participant: "It is imperative to build sustainable food and nutritional security systems. However, there is undoubtedly an urgent need to protect resource-poor farmers and help them benefit from the emerging new technologies." This is particularly important given the transformation of the farming system due to socio-economic changes caused by the Union Government's policies of liberalisation and globalisation.

THE Chennai Declaration recognised the fact that Indian agriculture is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the 110 million small and marginal farming families have demonstrated their ability to produce more per unit of land and lead the country to self-sufficiency in foodgrains. On the other, farmers are dying of starvation and some have even been driven to committing suicide - a phenomenon that has grown in the last few years. More than the vagaries of the monsoon, they suffer the tyranny of the market in the context of new economic policies. The unravelling of the public distribution and healthcare systems has aggravated their problems. Institutional safety nets, which in the past cushioned farmers during times of crises, are disappearing. There is a need to address this dichotomy.

The Chennai dialogue highlighted "poverty amidst plenty", a contradiction that needs immediate attention. Every fourth farmer in the world today is an Indian - the number of farming families in India has increased from five million at the time of Independence to 110 million today. Food stocks had grown from 44 million tonnes two years ago to 65 million tonnes in 2002. This is, ironically, not because of excess production but because the people, especially from areas where they are produced, are unable to access food. Over 320 million people, mostly women and children, suffer from chronic hunger.

THE other major concern is that the twin engines of economic growth - technological revolution and globalisation - tend to widen the biotechnology gap between developed and developing countries. The Chennai Declaration points out that the development of the four pillars of agricultural prosperity - technology, training, infrastructure and trade - vary considerably across the world, which is a matter of grave concern.

Globally, this lopsided pattern of development has led to two cultures of agriculture. In the developed countries, where the average size of farms is large, farming is heavily subsidised; there, some nine lakh farming families receive a total subsidy of $1 billion a day. But the 110 million farming families in India have to share a subsidy of $ 1 billion a year. The latter suffer further from poor access to technology and farm equipment, and lack of capital and markets, apart from diminishing per capita availability of arable land and water. There is thus a need to concentrate not only on aspects of ecology and productivity but also on the social aspects of access to market and food.

In the process of multinational biotechnology companies seeking to exercise control over the farming practices in the developing countries use of biotechnology is undermined. Governments of developed countries, particularly the United States, are under constant pressure from such companies, and their actions often threaten the very existence of small and medium farmers in developing countries. For example, while India's Plant Variety Protection and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001, recognises the right of farmers to store and sell seeds, the U.S. has endorsed "utility patents" over plant varieties, which do not allow farmers to save up seeds. Similarly, developed countries have interpreted the International Seed Treaty in such a way that while germplasm taken from any country "cannot be patented in its original form", they can be patented after "some modification".

More worrisome is the speed at which the multinational biotechnology companies are obtaining patents over genes, gene sequencing and cell lines. For instance, Monsanto owns all genetically modified varieties of cotton, as well as 228 other cotton gene sequencing. The Guardian (November 15, 2000) reported that there are 25 patents on pineapples, 25 on raspberries, 21 on grapes, 11 on oranges, nine on apples, one on tamarind, and 43 on silk genes, including several on the golden orb-weaving spider, which makes one of the strongest and finest of threads.

These companies have not spared food crops either. Over 228 wheat gene sequences have been patented while 152 patent applications have been made for rice, covering 584 genes or partial gene sequences. The U.S.-based multinational Dow has applied for patents on 655 maize gene sequences, DuPont for 587, Affymetrix for 418, Monsanto for 102 and Astra Zeneca for 83. The top five multinational companies account for 85 per cent of the 2,181 such applications made. The introduction of product and process patents, along with the removal of trade barriers, will be disastrous for the farmers of developing countries, according to food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma.

In spite of these negative aspects, scientists are convinced that biotechnology has immense potential if applied properly. According to R.B. Singh, genomics (the science of deciphering the structure and function of a genome) has emerged as the most powerful discipline to understand the organisation, and expression and interaction of an organism at the genome level. Structural (nucleotide sequences) and functional genomics have expanded the scientific understanding of biodiversity. Since 2000, projects numbering 141 relating to the sequencing of microbes, plants and animals are under way. The successful gene sequencing of rice, yeast, nematodes and the fruit fly has helped the understanding of gene function, gene transfer and evolution.

Another area that has contributed immensely to crop and livestock improvement in a short time span with higher reliability and efficiency is the development of molecular marker systems. It has helped in the genetic fingerprinting of species and cultivars. Bioprospecting for novel genes, compounds and organisms has also contributed to value addition and enhancement of plant genetic resources.

According to R.B. Singh, not all modern biotechnologies generate transgenic or `genetically modified organisms' (GMOs). Molecular mapping, marker-assisted breeding, micro-array or biochips, cellular engineering, tissue culture and animal cloning are all technologies that can be applied to any plant or animal gene pool to improve varieties. These are not transgenics and lie outside the restrictions of current biotechnology and biosafety regulations.

According to Science Ashram's Purvi Mehta Bhat, biotechnology provides the answer to many of the chronic problems facing the developing countries. According to S.R. Rao of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, India has put in place adequate safety mechanisms in this field. Yet, he said, the huge stakes that private MNCs have in biotechnology give room for concern. He feared that this could result in the genetic divide between developed and developing countries.

While it is important to develop biotechnology, it is imperative to institute a regulatory mechanism to address biosafety concerns and protect the vulnerable small and marginal farmers from the vagaries of the market and the dominance of MNCs. Effective and regular monitoring is also crucial. To address all these issues, the Chennai Declaration came out with a National Food and Agricultural Policy.

The bottom line, according to the scientists, was to dispel the fear from public minds, of the ills of using biotechnology products, even while regulating and monitoring the use of GMOs. Farmers have done it in the past, and are sure to do it in the future.

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