Sunday, January 30, 2011

Biotechnology and Agriculture

Talk given at AIPSN congress on Dec 29th 2010

Dr. S. Krishnaswamy
State President
Tamil Nadu Science Forum


The use of plants and animals for human food and living can be broadly called as agriculture. Biotechnologies refer to many technologies that relate to the manipulation of living organisms. It can be as simple as making curds to complex uses like molecular engineering of organsims for agriculture. Tissue culture can be used to grow plants that are difficult to farm. Hybrids can be better characterised and refined with molecular markers. Animal breeding can be improved and refined. Production of fuel, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, plastics are also possible through bioengineering. The multinationals push for the use of a particular type of biotechnology like Bt technology where a plant is made to produce a toxin, from a bacteria Bacillus Thuringiensis, which is specific to a species of insects has unfortunately overshadowed a much larger canvas of possibilities. Globalisation, big business interests and IPRs have pushed biotechnological applications in India, as in most other countries, in directions away from sustainable agriculture practices and national interests. The development of robust monitoring and regulatory systems along with transparent, participatory decision making process involving peoples organisations and movements are necessary especially for utilisation of open biotechnologies, due to the lack of understanding of the dynamics of interactions in biological ecosystems.


Everyday newspapers have some item related to biotechnology. The words DNA, genome, GM (Genetically Modified) crops, GMOs (Genetically modified organisms) and others are often used. There are plenty of biotechnology oriented courses being run by public and private institutions. More and more students from school or college start talking of wanting to work in drug design, biotechnology etc. We have films like Avatar, Jurassic Park, The Attack of the Clones, Species and others which make use of biotechnology to entertain us.
The basis of transgenic technologies that allow us to make Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) lies in the common origins of life. Darwin proposed 150 years ago that there is a common origin for life. Random variations amongst individuals in a population combined with natural selection due to the constraints arising from the environment and natural resources provided the evolutionary changes for various species to arise. Human beings and the various life forms on earth were shown not to be created but to have evolved over the period of geological time. Therefore all organisms on earth are genetically modified by evolution over the 350 crore years that life has seen on earth.

The question that arises is what is biotechnology? One way of understanding Biotechnology is to think of it as bio+technology. That means the ‘application of scientific knowledge related to biological sciences for practical purposes’. In other words using biological knowledge to solve problems or make useful products. But this is nothing new. Since human beings became domesticated ten thousand years ago they have been growing crops and raising animals. We have used micro-organisms for thousands of years to make bread, curds, idlis etc. Why the sudden attention or interest? In the 1960s and 1970s the cellular and molecular level understanding of biology helped the use of the building blocks of organisms - cells and molecules - in addition to using whole organisms. The use of molecular or cellular information for practical applications can then be called ‘New or Modern’ biotechnology. There are many approaches to the practical use of the biological knowledge. So, changing the singular ‘biotechnology’ to the plural ‘biotechnologies’ is more appropriate. What we then mean by ‘Modern or New Biotechnologies’ are a collection of many technologies that make use of the properties of cells and biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins. Then using bacteria to ferment wine or curd would be ‘Classical Biotechnology’ while using bacteria containing modified molecules or foreign molecules for the same purpose is part of ‘Modern Biotechnology’.
When most people think of biotechnology, such products come to mind as new medicines, tests for diseases, insect-resistant cotton and microbes for cleaning up oil spills. All these products, and many more, represent many years of scientific investigation into how biological systems work and the long and laborious process of product development. The development of basic research in the areas of molecular cloning, genomics, functional genomics, proteomics, structural genomics, antisense technology, gene knockouts is fundamental to the biotechnological developments. Basic research in physical, chemical and mathematical sciences is thus essential.

What makes biotechnologies possible?

Molecules and cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. The simplest living things, such as yeast, consist of a single, self-sufficient cell. Bacteria such as E.coli which reside in the intestines are single celled. Complex creatures such as plants, animals and humans, are made of many different cell types, each of which performs a very specific task. Living things have great diversity. They also have remarkable similarity. All living things are composed of the same four types of biological molecules, operate using essentially the same cellular process and speak the same molecular language. This unity of life at the level of cells and molecules provides the foundation for biotechnologies.
The types of biological molecules we use most often in biotechnology are DNA and proteins. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic material of almost all living things, provides instructions for making cells and performing cellular tasks, while proteins provide the building materials and do all the work. Surprisingly all life on earth uses the same set of four chemical units - Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G) and Cytosine (C) for making up their DNA. They are joined together the same way. Only the order in which they are strung together, their length and composition vary. The way the information is recorded or stored in the organism with the units (called bases) pairing with their partners (A with T, G with C) seems universal with slight variations. Some such as the virus HIV prefer to use RNA (ribonucleic acid) instead of DNA for information storage. Different companies that make cassette players use the components made by their companies but the way the cassettes work in getting the music out of the tape is similar. So too with all cells. The way the record is played to get the information to make the proteins is similar between organisms.
Each cell contains a work force of thousands of different kinds of proteins, assigned to particular tasks. The DNA which contains the information for making these proteins serves as the control center for the cell, determining which proteins are produced and coordinating their activities. Proteins in all cells are scripted using the same twenty aminoacid letters. Different ways of putting the letters together give different proteins. Like stories by different authors for varied purposes. Only proteins have three dimensional shapes dictated by the sequence of amino acids in the protein chain. The structure is related to the function. Like different buildings with different functions. Thus the nucleic acid sequence of bases decides the sequence of amino acids in the proteins, which in turn gives rise to the different structures of proteins and these three dimensional protein molecules function to give life. And the cycle goes on. The information flow is not all straightforward all the time. The molecules live in an environment inside the cell and, like for us, the environment can decide whether the molecules function well or not. The interactions between biological molecules are complex, not completely understood, and lead to the complexity of life.

Biotechnology and humans

In the natural world, changes in DNA sequence can happen due to many reasons. Sexual reproduction is a major way of allowing different DNA combinations to arise due to mixing of the genes from one individual to another. Recombination involving host and parasite DNA is also a way of improving the fitness of organisms. If the DNA changes result in protein changes, they can lead to changes in the way the cell survives or functions. The accumulation of these changes can lead to changes in the organism. New organisms can then arise. They can be members of the same species with modified characteristics like the way people breed animals or make hybrids in plants. Or if the changes are large enough to differentiate the organism from its parent, they slowly tend to drift apart leading to new species being formed.
The manipulation of DNA sequences in the natural world forms the basis of evolution and has been happening over the last 350 crore years resulting in organisms like us humans. Since the time humans developed agriculture or domesticated animals, we have been manipulating organisms. Breeding is a classic example of such manipulation. Now humans in the last 50 years have been able to a limited extent to learn the science behind the process at a molecular level and develop technologies to perform genetic manipulations at a molecular level. Current molecular based transgenic technologies are more precise, specific than breeding or making hybrids. The molecule-based technologies also help cross the species barrier and allow us to take genes from say a bacterium and put it in a plant. The genetic manipulation technologies or biotechnologies or recombinant DNA technologies are still in its infancy. Other technologies like nuclear technology or space technology is better controlled scientifically because the physics of the situations are fairly well understood. Thus one can predict fairly accurately the damage a nuclear bomb can cause or the extent to which a spacecraft can travel. The main dangers of nuclear technologies arise from socio-political-economic reasons. The problems are mitigated to a certain extent by the lack of wide spread applications and large scale commercial prospects. In the case of genetic manipulation technologies, there are problems that can arise from our lack of biological understanding, the complex and changing nature of biology and also socio-political-economic reasons. The situation is compounded in an atmosphere of unregulated privatization considering the enormous potential of biological applications and their huge commercial benefits.
Of what use is biotechnology?

Biotechnology takes advantage of the fact that all cells speak the same genetic language, and finds ways to use parts of the DNA instruction manual from one cell to be read and implemented by cells from other living things. This happens all the time in nature which is how life has ‘evolved’. Therefore, technologies based on cells and molecules allow great flexibility in using nature’s diversity. In addition, cells and biological molecules are extraordinarily specific in their interactions. Because of this specificity, biotechnology’s tools and techniques are precise, tailored to operate in known, predictable ways. As a result, the hope is that biotechnology products will solve specific problems, generate gentler or fewer side effects and have fewer unintended consequences. Specific, precise, predictable – these best describe the current biotechnologies.
As with all things that can benefit, as for example nuclear energy, there are also problems, such as the nuclear bombs. How we use the technologies is dictated by social, political and economic compulsions. It is estimated that more than 3250 lakh people worldwide have been helped by more than 130 biotechnology drugs and vaccines that have been so far approved by the touchstone of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Currently there are more than 350 biotech drug products and vaccines in clinical trials targeting more than 200 diseases such as various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and arthritis. Biotechnology is responsible for hundreds of medical diagnostic tests that keep the blood supply safe from the AIDS virus and detect other conditions early enough to be successfully treated. Home pregnancy tests are also biotechnology diagnostic products. In the North Americas, biotechnology modified papaya, soybeans and corn are available. Hundreds of biopesticides and other agricultural products also are being used to improve food supply and to reduce dependence on conventional chemical pesticides. Environmental biotechnology products make it possible to clean up hazardous waste more efficiently by harnessing pollution-eating microbes without the use of caustic chemicals. Industrial biotechnology applications have led to cleaner processes that produce less waste and use less energy and water in such industrial sectors as chemicals, pulp and paper, textiles, food, energy, and metals and minerals. For example, most laundry detergents produced in the United States, and nowadays in our country, contain biotechnology-based enzymes.

Socio-economics of biotechnology

Where there are benefits, industrialization and commercialization follow. Biotechnology is one of the most research-intensive industries in the world. Biotechnology thrives on patents and Intellectual Property Rights. The total value of biotech companies at market prices in the U.S.A., was estimated at Rs. 6,20,000 crores as of early May 2002. The biotechnology industry in U.S.A. has more than tripled in size. U.S. biotechnology companies employ over 120,000 researchers and staff. The U.S. biotechnology industry currently employs more people than employed, for example, by the toy and sporting goods industries in the U.S.A.

Developing countries like China, Brazil etc have started spending money on focused biotechnology. China has identified over 50 plant species and more than 120 functional genes for plant genetic engineering. During 1996-2000, of the 353 applications, it has approved 251 cases of transgenic plants, animals and recombinant micro-organisms for field trials, environmental releases or commercialization. Regulators approved 45 transgenic plant applications for field trials, 65 for environmental release and 31 for commercialization. Transgenic rice resistant to three major pests like stem borer, planthopper and bacterial leaf blight have passed at least two years of environmental trials. Transgenic wheat resistant to barley yellow dwarf virus is ready for field trials. China not only encourages research and releases of transgenic crops, but also has a series of well regulated laws for ensuring biosafety and risk assessment and management. China has passed regulations that require clear labeling of GMOs and processed products containing GMOs. It has implemented many provisions of the UN convention on biodiversity. The entire exercise for implementation of biosafety and biodiversity norms is done by the environmental protection administration in coordination with 20 departments, including ministries of education, construction, science and technology, agriculture, state forestry administration, state oceanic administration and the Chinese Science Academy. China’s reforms in the Intellectual Property Rights and in the seed industry have gone hand in hand with the steps towards the adoption of transgenic technology in agriculture.
China’s total investment in plant biotech in 1999 was Rs 5,600 crores. About 9.2 per cent of the crop research budget in China has been allocated to plant biotechnology. In India the budgetary allocation to overall agricultural research is below 1 per cent of the agricultural GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Unlike the rest of the world, China funds almost all of its plant biotechnology research. Globally, public sector funding for plant biotech research is about 45 per cent, of which China alone accounts for more than 10 per cent. China now accounts for nearly one-third of the world’s public spending on plant biotechnology.
In India, the Government of India has a separate department of Biotechnology since the 1980s, and the current budget allocation for 2010-11 is around Rs 1200 crores. State Governments such as Kerala, Karnataka, TamilNadu and Maharashtra have announced Biotechnology policies which provide for infrastructure and administrative benefits. The biotech industry is small, employing about 20,000 people. Now in India, the number of private seed companies is almost three times those from the public sector. The advent of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) in biotechnology has increased the use of public funds by private industry. The choice of targets for transgenics, lack of labelling systems, poor regulatory mechanisms, absence of transgenic monitoring/testing centers and non-transparent decision making has plagued the use of biotechnology in agriculture in India. The problem with use of biotechnology in agriculture lies not in the technology but in the ownership of the technology, problems of containment, socio-economics of farming and lack of focus on issues relevant to the Indian context.

Cell Culture technology

The growing of cells outside of living organisms is cell culture technology. This allows the possibility of selecting cells or manipulating cells for specific properties or expression of molecules and then propagating them outside the organism. These can be done with plant cells, insect cells and mammalian cells.
Plant cell culture allows plant cells that have been manipulated or modified to be grown into a full plant. Any cell from a plant can be used to regenerate the plant with appropriate nutritional and environmental conditions. This is an essential step in creating transgenic crops. Plant cell culture also provides an environmentally sound and economically feasible option for obtaining naturally occurring products with therapeutic value. One example is in the case of a molecule, marketed as Taxol, which used for treatment of cancers. It is obtained normally from yew trees. Plant cell culture is also an important source of compounds used as flavors, colors and aromas by the food processing industry.
Biological control of insect pests helps the environment. However manufacturing the molecules involved in biological control in an environmental friendly non-synthetic way in marketable amounts has been difficult. Insect cell culture is helpful in removing these manufacturing constraints. Certain viruses, such as baculoviruses, which infect insect cells can be used to make more amounts of the desired molecule by using these viruses as carrier agents. Thus insect cell culture can broaden the use of biological control agents that kill insect pests without harming beneficial insects or having pesticides accumulate in the environment.
Mammalian cell culture has been used for cattle breeding for many years. Eggs and sperm, taken from genetically superior bulls and cows and then united in the lab, are cultured before being implanted in surrogate cows. Mammalian cell culture has become increasingly important in the manufacture of human therapeutic proteins, because genetically modified microbes sometimes cannot produce fully functional forms of these molecules.

Cloning technology

Cloning technology is like paper copier technology. It is possible to generate a population of genetically identical molecules, cells, plants or animals. Molecular cloning provides the foundation of the molecular biology revolution and is a fundamental and essential tool of biotechnology research, development and commercialization. Virtually all applications of recombinant DNA technology depend on molecular cloning. In molecular cloning, the word clone refers to a gene or DNA fragment and also to the collection of cells or organisms, such as bacteria, containing the cloned piece of DNA.
Cellular cloning produces cell lines of identical cells. The regeneration of transgenic plants from single cells, pharmaceutical manufacturing based on mammalian cell culture etc. all depend on cellular cloning
Animal cloning has helped incorporate improvements into livestock herds for more than two decades and has been an important tool since the 1950s. The news of Dolly, the cloned sheep, in 1997 was considered a scientific breakthrough not because she was a clone, but because the source of the genetic material that was used to produce Dolly was an adult cell, not an embryonic one. Animal cloning can be used for making therapeutically or nutritionally important molecules that are acceptable to the animal system.

Transgenic plants

Transgenic plants carry a foreign gene from viruses, bacteria or animals. The production and protection traits that are or can be incorporated into crops with biotechnology are the same traits they have incorporated through selective breeding: increased yields; resistance to diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses; the ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions such as freezes and droughts; and resistance to pests such as insects, weeds and nematodes. The classic example is in Hawaii where a papaya virus outbreak nearly killed 50% of the papaya plantations in Puna. Efforts to grow transgenic papaya had been started in 1989 itself. Field trials with transgenic papaya had been made in 1992 and so when the virus outbreak occurred large scale transgenic plantations were made in Puna and successful restoration of the economy was possible. Transgenic crops need to undergo clearances at various levels in order to ensure that environmental and health hazards do not exist.

Transgenic plants can be made as manufacturing plants for pharmaceutical compounds. Genes that code for therapeutic proteins have been inserted into a variety of commonly grown crops such as tobacco, corn and soybeans. The proteins maintain their stability for more than two years in dried seeds of the transgenic plants. Therapeutic proteins produced by transgenic plants to date include antibodies, antigens, growth factors, hormones, enzymes, blood proteins and collagen. Several plant-produced therapeutics are in clinical trials. In addition, scientists have made excellent progress in using plants as vaccine-manufacturing facility and delivery systems. They have used tobacco, potatoes and bananas to produce vaccines against infectious diseases, including cholera, a number of microbes that cause food poisoning, Hepatitis B and the bacterium that causes dental cavities. A cancer “vaccine” (which is therapeutic and not preventive) to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has also been produced in plants. One of the companies in USA, developing plant produced antibodies estimates that this production method is 25 to 100 times less expensive than cell fermentation methods. Therefore, transgenic plants can help produce a less expensive and plentiful supply of therapeutic proteins.

Transgenic animals

Biotechnology provides new tools for improving animal health and increasing livestock productivity. These improvements come from the improved ability to detect, treat and prevent diseases and other problems, and from better feed derived from transgenic crops designed to meet the food needs of different farm animals. Farmers in North America are using biotechnology-based diagnostic tests in their livestock herds for early and more accurate diagnosis of certain diseases. Because of their specificity, these diagnostics are faster, more accurate and more sensitive than traditional diagnostics and are also portable, which allows on-site diagnosis. Diagnosing a disease sooner and with greater accuracy means that proper treatment can be started sooner, thus decreasing spread of the disease. Brucellosis, pseudorabies, scours, foot and mouth disease, blue tongue, avian leucosis and trichinosis are a few of the economically important infectious diseases that can be diagnosed quickly and accurately by biotechnology based diagnostic tests.

Polymers from transgenics

Biotechnology can help replace petroleum derived polymers with biological polymers derived from grain or agricultural biomass. Cotton genetically modified to contain a bacterial gene produces a polyester-like substance that is biodegradable and has the texture of cotton, but is warmer. Other biopolymers with the potential to replace synthetic fabrics and fibers are under development in Japan and the United States. Industrial scientists have also genetically modified both plants and microbes to produce polyhydroxybutyrate towards producing biodegradable plastics. It is possible to produce abundant amounts of natural protein polymers, such as spider silk and adhesives from barnacles, through microbial fermentation. In place of petroleum-based chemicals to create plastics and polyesters, biotechnology uses sugar from plant material. Almost all the giant chemical companies are building partnerships with biotech companies to develop enzymes that can break down plant sugars. Field corn is converted into a biodegradable substance that can be used to produce packaging materials, clothing and bedding products.

The case of Bt technology

Bt technology is one technology, which uses the capability evolved in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt is primarily a soil bacterium, but also occurs naturally in the gut of caterpillars of various types of moths and butterflies as well as on the dark surface of plants. B. thuringiensis was discovered 1901 in Japan by Ishiwata and 1911 in Germany by Ernst Berliner. Upon sporulation, Bt produces proteinaceous crystal proteins that are encoded by cry genes that exist in plasmids (an extra-chromosomal material) in the bacteria. The spores and bacteria have been used as pesticide since 1920s. Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humans, wildlife, pollinators, and most other beneficial insects. Bacillus thuringiensis serovar israelensis, a strain of B. thuringiensis is widely used as a larvicide against mosquito larvae, where it is also considered an environmentally friendly method of mosquito control.
In Bt technology the gene that produces the cry protein toxic to a class of insect (lepidopteran) can be taken from the bacterium that harbors it and inserted into a plant (cotton, brinjal, potato, tomato, rice etc) so that the desired plant part (leaf, fruit etc) can now produce the toxin protein. The cry protein when ingested by the insect gets activated at the pH of the gut of the insect. The protein is inserted into the membrane of the cells that line the gut and causes those cells to die eventually leading to the death of the insect. Some cry proteins are effective against certain bollworms, some are effective against mosquito larvae etc. For each crop the most damaging pest has been targeted, as for example, the bollworms of cotton, the stem borers of rice and corn and the stem and fruit borers of aubergine (brinjal, egg plant). The objective is that, while the Bt proteins take care of the major pests, the rest can be controlled by conventional pest management practices. The choice of Bt genes depends upon the crop and the targeted pest, as most of the Bt toxins are insect group specific. For example, the proteins encoded by the genes Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab control the cotton bollworms, Cry1Ab controls corn borer, Cry3Ab controls Colarado potato beetle and Cry3Bb controls corn rootworm. The Belgian company Plant Genetic Systems was the first company (in 1985) to develop genetically engineered (tobacco) plants with insect tolerance by expressing cry genes from B. thuringiensis.
A gene construct (or a cassette) consisting of the chosen Bt gene is made, along with other molecular components needed for its expression in the transgenic crop variety. The construct consists of sequences of nucleotides, a) to initiate the expression of the selected gene, b) to promote such expression, c) the actual sequence for the gene and d) a nucleotide sequence to signal the completion of the process of expression. This construct is then incorporated into the tissue of a (chosen primary) variety of the crop, and this is called an event. A large number of plants are developed from the event, through micropropagation (tissue culture) for agronomic and biosecurity evaluation in a green house. Since this primary variety may not be suitable for cultivation in all countries or even in different regions in the same country, the event has to be transferred into the genetic component of other varieties suitable for cultivation in different parts of the world. For example, the event MON 531, containing the Cry1Ac gene, was used to develop the Bt cotton variety of Coker 312, which is not suitable for cultivation in India. The chosen Indian regional varieties were repeatedly backcrossed with Bt Coker 312 to develop different Bt cotton varieties. All Bt cotton varieties containing Cry1Ac gene and developed from MON 531 are marketed under the trade name Bollgard I. In India there are now about 140 Bt cotton varieties permitted for commercial cultivation in different parts of the country and most of them are Bollgard I varieties as they were developed from MON 531 and contain Cry1Ac gene, marketed by several seed companies under license from Monsanto and its partner Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco). The commercial prospects of this technology are enormous. Monsanto had the first Bt related patent in 1984. There are now more than 5000 patents related to Bt transgenics and also controversies such as the one between DOW chemicals and Monsanto over the rights of the patents. In 2005, Dow Chemicals won rights over the Bt technology. In that year alone the as per the statistics of US Agriculture Dept 290 lakh acres of Bt corn and 70 lakh acres of Bt cotton were planted. Most of the seed sales for these came from Monsanto.
China presents an interesting situation. In 1997 Bt-Cry1Ac transgenic pest-resistant cotton from the United States was introduced in China and home-bred pest-resistant cotton was cultivated commercially in 1999. Before 2001, Bt cotton was grown mainly in the Yellow River (Huanghe) basin, and the growing area was about 0.5 million hectares. By 2006, Bt cotton had been grown intensively in every cotton-growing area, and reached 4 million hectares, accounting for 70% of the total growing area in China. Growing Bt cotton has become a key measure in controlling the damage caused by the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) and pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) effectively. The seed industry in China is beginning to use the patent system. For example, Dr. Guo Sandui of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) received a patent on the Bt gene that he developed. This gene is being used in all of the China-produced varieties that are being sold by a CAAS (fully domestic) joint venture enterprise
Bt cotton
In 1996 Monsanto, introduced two varieties of genetically engineered cotton for the first time in U.S. One was a Roundup (a Monsanto manufactured herbicide glyphosate) resistant variety and the other named 'Bollgard' contained a Bt gene and was resistant to bollworms. In 1994 in India, the application for transgenic Bt cottonseed import was considered by the committee set up then by the Dept of Biotechnology, Govt of India. The permit was received in 1995 for import of 100g Bt cotton seed of Coke 312 from Monsanto. In 1996, the seeds were imported and green house trials were initiated. Back crossing into elite parental lines for breeding were carried out. Limited field trials in 6 locations were done to assess pollen escape. In 1998 toxicological studies and allergenicity studies were done. In 1998/1999 multi centric research trials in around 50 locations were done to assess efficacy of Bt gene in indian germplasm. In 2000/2001 large scale trials in around 100 hectares were done, followed by hybrid seed production and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) trials in around 17 locations. In April 2002, three varieties of Bt cotton hybrids promoted by Mahyco-Monsanto (Mech 12 Bt, Mech 162 Bt, Mech 184 Bt) were approved for commercialisation in 6 states of India ( Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu). The performance of the varieties was not consistent in all the six states in terms of yield and economic returns. Moreover, there have been wide differences between the results obtained by studies sponsored by the company, independent researchers and NGOs. Cases of farmer suicides, arising from cost of cultivation pushing the farmers into debt, across parts of India since the mid-2000s have intensified the debate regarding the success of Bt cotton. In 2006, most cotton-growing states in the country issued an order to force seed manufacturer Monsanto's licensees to sell its products at less than half the prevailing price. Andhra Pradesh initially fixed the price of the 45-gramme packets of Bt cottonseeds at Rs 750 for the planting season instead of the prevailing rate of Rs 1,800.
Andhra Pradesh had first raised the price issue during the last planting season, telling Monsanto's licensee - Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech - and sub-licensees that they would have to compensate farmers for crop losses, because the charges for the seeds were exorbitant in comparison to international prices. Approximately, for instance, the price of Bt seeds in China was less than a third that in India. The main reason for the skew in prices was that Monsanto charges its Indian licensees a ‘trait value' (another name for royalty) much in excess of international standards — for instance, in China it charges Rs 40 for 450 grams as compared to Rs 1,250 in India. The trait charge arises because though Monsanto held the patent in US, China it was not valid in India since patenting of life forms was not valid in India, Monsanto had to charge fees to recover its research and development costs. The legality of the 'trait charge' was questioned under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. The agreement between Monsanto and its licensees contained restrictions in the matter of production, supply and control of seed by domestic seed companies, which allowed seed prices to be jacked up to high levels. Domestic companies were not allowed to sub-license technology given to them by Monsanto thereby reducing the number of players in the market, allowing the seed major to fix the trait value. There are competitors like JK Agrigenetics, Nath Seeds, Navbarath Seeds who have obtained the Bt technology through other sources or developed it without agreement with Monsanto. However the delay by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), that has to clear commercialisation, in giving approval to the indigenous companies on concerns over environmental issues, has proved advantageous to Monsanto. In contrast, the Chinese developed a Bt variety called guokang on the basis of pirated technology and put it in the market. Though not successful agronomically, it helped the Chinese government negotiate with Monsanto in terms of pricing and other issues. On the contrary, India has not been able to arm twist Monsanto in terms of pricing. Four companies- Jalna-based Mahyco, Salem-based Rasi Seeds, Hyderabad-based Nuziveedu seeds and New Delhi-based Pro Agro collected Rs 1,000 crore worth of trait value in the 2005-06 season for Monsanto. One district of Andhra yields Rs 18 crore in trait fees a year on an average. Subsequently Gujarat also brought in price regulation. The Bt cotton companies are of course against the whole question of regulation. There is a large illegal market in place for Bt cotton seeds due to its popularity.

Bt Brinjal
The eggplant, aubergine, or brinjal (Solanum melongena), is a plant of the family Solanaceae (also known as the nightshades) and genus Solanum. As a nightshade, it is closely related to the tomato and potato and is native to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory but became known to the Western world no earlier than ca. 1500 CE. The brinjal fruit is botanically classified as a berry and is extensively used in cooking as a vegetable. The fruit also causes allergies in certain cases. A study in 2008 of a sample of 741 people found that nearly 10% reported some allergic symptoms after consuming eggplant, while 1.4% showed symptoms in less than 2 hours.[ A wide range of shapes, sizes and colors are grown in India and elsewhere in Asia. Larger varieties weighing up to a kilogram grow in the region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, while smaller varieties are found elsewhere. Colors vary from white to yellow or green as well as reddish-purple and dark purple. Some cultivars have a color gradient, from white at the stem to bright pink to deep purple or even black. Green or purple cultivars in white striping also exist. Oval or elongated oval-shaped and black-skinned cultivars include Harris Special Hibush, Burpee Hybrid, Black Magic, Classic, Dusky, and Black Beauty. Slim cultivars in purple-black skin include Little Fingers, Ichiban, Pingtung Long, and Tycoon; in green skin Louisiana Long Green and Thai (Long) Green; in white skin Dourga. Traditional, white-skinned, egg-shaped cultivars include Casper and Easter Egg. Bicolored cultivars with color gradient include Rosa Bianca and Violetta di Firenze. Bicolored cultivars in striping include Listada de Gandia and Udumalapet. In some parts of India, miniature varieties (most commonly called Vengan) are popular. A particular variety of green brinjal known as Matti Gulla is grown in Matti village of Udupi district in Karnataka. Some of the public sector improved varieties include Pusa Kranthi, Pusa Purple Cluster, Syamala. Hybrids include Arka Navneet, Utarsha etc. Brinjal also figures in wide variety of dishes cooked all over the country, so much so it is referred to as 'The King of Vegetables'. The flowers can be both self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. The worldwide production of Brinjal comes mainly from China, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey. In India around 5 lakh hectares are grown. The total production of brinjal is around 82 lakh metric tonnes. It is mainly grown in small plots as a cash crop by farmers. The main growing areas are Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam and West Bengal.
Bt brinjal unlike the corn and cotton counterparts, which are not directly in the food chain, was not commercialised in the US first, though substantial cultivation takes place in state of New Jersey, USA. Moreover, though Monsanto has a strong presence in China, which is the largest producer of brinjal, Bt brinjal was not introduced there. The introduction of Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop to be commercialised, was taken up only in India. The transformation work on Bt Brinjal started in 2000. Biosafety tests like pollen flow studies, acute oral toxicity were taken up in 2002. In 2004, after two years of evaluation, multi-location trials were conducted in 11 locations with five hybrids. Subsequently three more hybrids were assessed by the company and Indian Council of Agricultural Research in 2005 in 11 centres. Mahyco has sub licensed the technology as part of the USAID supported, Cornell University led consortium of public and private sector institutions project to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dhrwad and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varnasi. This transfer of technology was apparently free of cost. The public sector institutes were allowed to develop, breed and distribute their own Bt brinjal varieties on a cost-to-cost basis. In addition to Mahyco, the National Research Centre for Biotechnology at the Indian Institute of Agricultural Research had taken up agronomic trials in a controlled environment in 1998 - 2001. In 2003, they conducted field trials in five locations. Bejo Sheetal a company in Maharashtra is also working on Bt Brinjal. with the use of Cry1Ab gene for Bt Brinjal. In 2006 the Monsanto-Mahyco trials data was submitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Eight Bt brinjal hybrids were approved for large scale field trials. In 2008-09 GEAC approved the experimental seed production of seven Bt Brinjal hybrids on 0.1 acre per hybrid. In Oct 2009, the GEAC cleared the Bt brinjal for commercialisation. Due to pressure from various groups, the Union environment minister announced that a series of public consultations will be held before finalising the decision on the release. Possible usefulness
The Bt Brinjal will help control the pest - shoot and fruit borer. However, the damage caused is estimated is around 50%. This is an aggregate from various varieties of brinjal and types of the pest. The effect of Bt brinjal is also expected to reduce the use of pesticide, which is the reason the pesticide lobby is against the Bt brinjal introduction. The actual figures for the pest control and the reduction of pesticide could be lower going by the experiences from Bt corn, in the US, and Bt cotton, in India.

Worrisome factors
The loss of biodiversity (of brinjal) in the growth of brinjal will be seen as farmers will tend to cultivate only the hybrids that are Bt brinjal. This mono cultivation could lead to overall problems as the variation in a species is essential for its robustness and interaction with other organisms. This problem cannot be overcome by any transgenic technology. The control of seeds used by the farmers will rest with the private sector either directly or indirectly. This could be overcome by either nationalising the entire GM effort or the government taking over the entire seed production and distribution. Over time there will be resistance development in the insects as has been shown with other crops. The resistance development can be reduced by providing a sufficiently large refuge of non-GM crops around the GM fields. The presence of non-GM crops around GM crops will help dilute the number of pests that develop resistance initially. But this is just a matter of time. However, even this becomes impractical in Indian conditions where the cultivation is mostly by small farmers and the fields cannot be suffic It has also been shown that as the presence of Bt crop load increases in the form of different Bt crops – Bt cotton, Bt brinjal etc – being grown, the chances of Bt resistance developing in the pests is more. Thus increasing the diversity of Bt crop applications can become counter productive for all crops in the long run.
Gene flow to neighbouring crops and weeds has been documented. In the case of weeds, the inadvertent pest control will lead to greater weed growth as has been documented in other Bt applications. Brinjal is capable of both self and cross pollination. The rates of natural cross pollination vary depending on the genotype, location and insect activity. Wild and weedy plants, that are close relatives or have some degree of cross-compatibility with these brinjal varieties are capable of getting affected. These will act as reservoir and can lead to contamination. GM crops require a strict regulation of crop rotation, with the GM fields not being used for growing other crops in order to prevent contamination. The lack of regulation enforcement and corruption in our system will ensure rampant mixing of GM and non GM food crops.
The small farmers who are the major growers of brinjal will be affected by the regulations, the seed price control and any backlash from the anti GM food campaign. Small farmers also cannot provide the refuge space that is required for a cross-pollinating crop, to reduce the development of pest resistance.
Misleading arguments
Brinjal itself possess some amount of allergenic value. Individuals who are atopic (genetically predisposed to hypersensitivity, such as hay fever) are more likely to have a reaction to eggplant, which may be due to the fact that eggplant is high in histamines. A few proteins and at least one secondary metabolite have been identified as potential allergens. Cooking eggplant thoroughly seems to preclude reactions in some individuals, but at least one of the allergenic proteins survives the cooking process. The introduction of Bt cry protein is unlikely to add to the existing load. Introduction of other proteins or genes due to contaminating bacteria, fungi are more normally itself. Food security is often given as a reason for many GM technologies. This is a misleading proposition as the cause of food insecurity can be traced to inequalities in distribution rather than only production capabilities.
Labelling of GM and non-GM food is really a sidetracking of the main problem. Also, in our marketing system, labeling of food products is a laughable matter. Providing consumer choice is but a way of commercialization. Moreover, the issue is not about choice but about livelihood, sustainability and environmental friendliness.
Who benefits?

The major beneficiary of producing vegetables of uniformly good characteristics is the packaging and retailing industry. The rise of food retailing as a major industry is aided by the GM technology applied to food. Large farmers will be the major beneficiaries of the Bt brinal technology since the technology is aimed at scaling up of production and assumes large areas of land available for providing buffer zones. Retail chains and food production companies will benefit as products can be made in one place and shipped without fear of having insects or deterioration of quality over long distances. This provides a lucrative marketing potential to big players.
Do we need Bt brinjal?
Bt. Brinjal is a classic case of lack of involvement of people in the planning process of development and use of technology. The production of pest resistant brinjals through appropriate hybrids will be more sustainable than the Bt technology. Independent trials have been documented to show that in relation to Bt brinjal yields, pest management by practicing Integrated pest management and organic farmers are able to give comparable average yields over different regions and time periods.

What was needed?
GM technology is better aimed at non-food crops produced in possible closed green houses. Rational approaches that take into account the nature of farming, the presence of larger amount of biodiversity in tropical countries such as ours need to be adopted.
A support system for small and marginal farmers is needed from the Government in order to promote, spread and practice alternative integrated pest management systems.
A people and nature friendly policy and implementation mechanism is needed for determining GM technology based applications in food crops.
What could be done?
Transgenic research applications should be controlled and directed like the nuclear and space technologies. Nuclear and space research applications are controlled and directed by the Dept of Atomic Research and Dept of Space, respectively for security reasons. There are no private players in this area who have direct field applications in the country. ISRO makes use of indigenous technology and encourages private and public sector industries to develop required technologies. Similarly in the case of GM technology in applications to food crops, the threat of security though not apparent is implicitly greater. Moreover, the interests of the small farmers can be protected only through the state intervention in terms of applications of GM technology. Controlled factories for production of molecules of interest for therapeutic or other purposes will be good applications of GM technology. The Precautionary principle as enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol of which India is a signatory should be taken into consideration. This principle gives the option to countries to refuse the adoption of a technology whose negative impacts are not yet known in science. It also incorporates measures to safeguard them from being used as a dumping ground for untested, new technology. Other provisions also exist to protect the interests of developing countries. In the case of Bt technology, the technology is being directed towards Asia and Africa since there has been a saturation and limitation of application in the USA and Europe. Awareness and debate are essential to prevent the use of fear as a factor to limit the arbitrary and unwanted uses of GM technology. The use of fear by the NGOs and media merely drives people towards traditionalism and anti-science and anti-technology positions.

Which was the way to go?

Brinjal is a native fruit of Indian region. There are a large number of varieties that are grown in every region. It is vegetable that is used by the poor and the rich. The vegetable is grown more by small and marginal farmers, though the cumulative produce puts India in the second position of production. The damage by insects like the fruit and shoot borer does occur but the susceptibility varies depending on the strain of the insect and the brinjal variety. Moreover, Bt technology does not provide a life time guarantee for the targeted pest control. In the game of evolution, the effect will last as long as it takes for the insect to develop a resistance mechanism. The small farmer sells the vegetable in the local or nearby mandi or santhai. There is no requirement of standard size. The products are meant for local distribution not for transport across large distances and sale in food outlets. Food retailers, national and international, who enter this market require fairly uniform sizes and insect free produce for large scale shipping.
For food retailers, Bt brinjal holds great promise.
For small and regional farmers the increased seed costs, the possibility of weeds getting insect tolerant leading to excess growth of weeds, the restrictions on crop growing in fields that were used for growing GM crops, the potential for harassment in the name of regulation, the difficulty in meeting buffering zone requirements makes Bt brinjal a dual edged sword capable of killing them depending on the vagaries of the climatic conditions.
For the elite and affluent middle class urban consumer who buys the produce from the malls, Bt brinjal though costlier would mean dependable and standardized vegetables.
For the poor and lower middle class urban and rural consumer Bt brinjal would mean higher costs and reduced access to the local varieties.
Brinjal being open to self and cross pollination, for the biodiversity of brinjal the country, commercialization of Bt brinjal could be a potential disaster especially given the variety that are grown in our region. More farmers would only grow the Bt brinjal variety and the local ones would be lost.
So does it mean GM technologies such as Bt technology should be abandoned? There is no way to club all GM technologies. They are varied. If intelligently and conscientiously researched and adopted, they may prove beneficial.
As with any technology, utilizations can be in a people and nature friendly. Similarly as for any technology, in fact more so with GM technology applications in agriculture and medicine, unregulated use that will help increase the divide between the have and the have-nots, that will be harmful to the environment in the long run. How Bt technology is utilized and how it is regulated will make a major difference. The case of Bt cotton has shown that once introduced restrictions or regulations are difficult to implement. As it stands, Bt brinjal commercialization will benefit mostly the large farmers, food retail behemoths, will slowly erode the biodiversity of brinjal and could lead to increased development of resistance by pests due to the presence of both Bt cotton and Bt brinjal.

What happened – Moratorium, Biotechnology Regulatory Authority

The Ministry of Environment and Forests, under Mr. Jairam Ramesh, held a unique series of national consultations involving a broad cross section of people and invited comments from many scientists, activists and public individuals and organizations. All these were made available on the website of the Ministry and the Union Minister announced a moratorium on the commercialization of Bt. Brinjal in Feb 2010.
In September 2010, six national academies released a report on GM crops following a request by the Minister of Environment and Forests. However, the report was not found to be independent and was found to have sections copied from an industry report. The academy report was severely criticized as sham science. The Ministry has not considered the report.
In August 2010, the Cabinet approved the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill which was to be placed in the monsoon session of parliament. However, due to other events it has not been taken up yet. The Bill is a draconian measure, with clauses capable of misuse much like the sedition clause in the IPC.

Biotechnology Regulatory Authority

The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority is envisaged as an over reaching body which will be the final clearing house/facilitator/approver of applications pertaining to GMOs. The Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which exist now would be superseded by the BRA. The proposed authority becomes solely responsible for releasing and controlling GMOs throughout the country and envisages only an advisory role for States. The Bill has no provision for public participation. This is a violation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to which India is a signatory. The Bill tries to stifle the anti-GM voices by a clause that states “whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of organisms and products…shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with a fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both”. Moreover Chapter XIII of the Bill states “ whoever, himself or by any other person on his behalf, conducts clinical trials with organisms or products… shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to ten years and with fine which may extend to ten lakh rupees or with both”. This will cause harassment of civil society groups or scientists who voice their concerns.
The National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority seems to have been made with the idea of ensuring there are no broad consultations and protests as happened in the case of Bt. Brinjal. This must be viewed in the context of many other crops which have been brought under Bt technology due to the pervasive influence of the multinational lobbying.

IPR and open technologies

Transgenic technology is to be seen in the context of socio-economic-political circumstances and compulsions. It has tremendous potential in alleviating and improving life on earth. However, being driven by intellectual property rights (IPRs) there has to be appropriate national safeguards to prevent exploitation by multinational companies. In the 1980s the Bayh-Dole Act in the US came in the way of open technologies and allowed profitable privatization of biotechnologies developed at the Universities and with public funding. In 1994 the agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as part of the Uruguay round of trade negotiations consolidated the position of IPRs in relation to business interests. TRIPS is now part of the legal obligations of member countries under the WTO. The subsequent Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is more friendly towards towards germplasm rich countries.
The movement towards adoption of open biotechnologies, as in the development of technologies for the internet, will be essential for countries like ours.


Four hundred years ago, Copernicus and Galileo showed that the earth was not the centre of the Universe or Solar system and later 150 years ago Darwin showed that humans were not anything special but mere products of evolution like other organisms on earth. However, the species Homo sapiens has through the ability to have written history and by the process of engaging with nature continued to develop science and technology. This has enabled humans to colonize the planet earth in ways which other organisms have not managed to do so. One such is the process of agriculture. The utilization of plants and animals for the use of humans through science and technology, has and will continue to bring changes in the biodiversity of the planet. Only now, humans have started to realize the dangers of destroying the biodiversity of the planet. There is a growing awareness that the resources of the planet are limited. A more equitable sustained access and use is needed to prevent over exploitation of the planet. Eco-friendly, rational and non-exploitative use of open biotechnologies in agriculture may go a long way in ensuring a more sustained stay by humans on this planet.
In the words of Richard Feynman in his report to the space shuttle Challenger explosion enquiry “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations – for nature cannot be fooled”. We need to apply the precautionary principle and be cautious in the use of biotechnologies due to our lack of understanding of the dynamics of interactions in the ecosystem.
In a socio-economic-political system that in its development perspective is driven by private capital and enhances exploitation – be it of humans or other bio-resources – we need to be extra cautious as unlike with other technologies recall of genetically modified organisms from the environment is not feasible in the event of unforeseen effects. As with all technology, there are good and bad uses – the more people are informed and aware the better is the chance of the good uses being dominant.

No comments: