`The world`s entire gene pool is open for manipulation`

  • 27/02/1995

How can agricultural biotechnology help meet the world's food needs in the coming century?
Till about 1984, beginning with the Green Revolution in the late '60s, the rate of increase in food production was about 3 per cent annually, compared to the population growth, which was a little over 2 per cent. But between 1984 and 1994, food production declined gradually worldwide, including the Indian subcontinent, with the rate of growth now at 1 per cent. Obviously, we will soon come to a point when there will not be enough food and population will outgrow the food production capacity.

Of course, classical plant breeding can help, but developing new varieties using such methods is an extremely slow process. Moreover, the environmental conditions under which food is produced have deteriorated. There is a tremendous loss of top soil and arable land. Plus pollution. This is where biotechnology kicks in.

How is biotechnology superior to classical plant breeding?
Let's say that we know of a useful gene in one variety, or in an obscure wild species, and we try to transfer it into a cultivated species. This can be done only with closely related species. We cannot take, for instance, a very useful characteristic of rice and transfer it into wheat using classical techniques.

But biotechnology can overcome these problems. You can take any gene from any place and incorporate it into a totally different animal or plant. You can even take a human gene and put it in an insect or a plant or vice versa. The world's entire germ-plasm or gene-pool is open for manipulation. A lot of the fertiliser and nutrition that is sprayed on the crops is wolfed by weeds. This can be controlled by single genes that can provide resistance against fungal diseases, insects and viruses. During storage too, especially in tropical countries with their moist, humid and warm climate, we lose huge amounts of crops. A single gene can control all this.

But hasn't there been some major opposition by activists like Jeremy Rifkin?
Look, over the past 100 years, people like Jeremy Rifkin have opposed any major new technology. But there is no scientific evidence that transgenic plants are harmful. We know exactly what gene has been used. In fact, biotechnology is safer than plant breeding.

But isn't there a danger of a gene transfered in one type of crop being transfered to another crop in the same field?
There are chances of a gene being transfered from genetically-altered wheat to other plants, particularly weeds. Most of our crop species are so finely bred and so pampered by human care that they cannot survive in the wild on their own. And they do not freely hybridise. There have been discussions and workshops on this, which concluded that growing these transgenic crops in fields does not pose the danger of accidentally passing these genes to weed species.

However, there are some species, like oats and sorghum, where one has to be very careful. If you had to introduce a gene into oats and grow it in an area where wild oats also grows, there is every possibility of the gene being transferred within a year to wild oats.

Sorghum too crosses very freely with Sudan grass, a weed. There are no formal regulations but the scientific community has been very responsible in almost all cases.

If traits like insect and virus resistance are controlled by a single gene, isn't it possible that insects and viruses will overcome the plants' resistance to them ?
Sure. Insects and viruses will break down the plants' ability to resist them. Within a few years, the insects overcome that barrier. Plant breeders and the pathologists are racing against fungal and bacterial mutations, and other plant pests and pathogens, to create new varieties. Biotechnology is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Do you think biotechnology will be relevant to developing countries?
The impact of biotechnology is going to be the greatest in developing countries. For most industrial regions like north America, western Europe and Japan, biotechnology is a way of making more money. It's not a necessity. The problem is that much of this research is taking place in the more industrialised countries.

But surely the traits that are of interest to Indian farmers -- like drought tolerant, salt tolerant and high yields -- are far more difficult to incorporate using genetic engineering technologies...
Sure. At the moment, there is no technology known to introduce salt tolerance or drought tolerance. These things are very complex. They are controlled by several genes. People are beginning to work on these problems, but it's going to take several years before we see results.

Have Indian scientists not performed as well as those abroad because they are denied access to valuable genes, which are held by multinational companies?
Much of the basic work of identifying and cloning genes is in universities. They are publicly funded by agencies like the National Science Foundation in the US. Europe has several other agencies which fund such research.

They are all protected by patents but a great deal of the knowledge is in the public domain. India has such a large scientific infrastructure and many trained people, so I fail to understand why these things haven't been done. All I hear are complaints about the West's monopoly. Indian scientists too can have proprietary protection of genes, like anyone else.

How can we encourage more result-orientated plant biotechnology?
I feel that an effort should be made to encourage formal courses for graduate students in plant molecular biology and biochemistry. In the few places which have these courses, they are mostly theoretical. There is no practical hands-on laboratory training here and that's again a mistake. You cannot do this work by reading books.

Do you think biotechnology in the developing world will be cost effective in the long run? Is it a very expensive technology at the moment?
It is not a very expensive technology. Some of the techniques are fairly simple. And I think that Indian science can benefit and scientists will not have to do over again a lot of work that has already been done. They can do research which is relevant and important to Indian conditions.

But international companies are filing species patents, preventing other researchers from working on an plant species without paying a royalty...
But these broad patents have been challenged in Europe and the United States.

Do you think that such patents will make it difficult for farmers to access technologies cheaply?
If companies want to benefit from these technologies financially, they will have to offer their products on reasonable terms. If they ask exorbitant prices, nobody is going to use their technology.

A great deal of wild biodiversity exists in developing countries and this is our only leverage. Do you think technology-rich multinationals should pay for the biodiversity they collect from the developing world?
This is being discussed internationally at the highest level. It is true that a lot of germplasm has been collected from developing countries and has been used to produce better plant varieties. But how far back in time are you going to go? There are a few recognised centres of diversity where the crops of the world originated. Most cereals originated in Iran and Iraq; corn originated in Central America; the potato in Peru. You can't go back and say that the countries that grow potatoes should pay royalty to Peru.

What has happened in the past has happened. But what about the future?
I think that once you realise that there is exploitation, there should some restriction on the export of germ plasm. There should be some agreements between exporter and importer about sharing technologies and profits that come from germ plasm. New treaties can be negotiated. But I do agree that if there are many medicinal biodiversity of value in India, no foreign drug companies should be allowed to take all of them to their countries, and then develop the drugs internationally and in India.