Biotechnology Revolution

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BIOTECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION Modern biotechnology originated in the mid-1970s with new advances in genetics, immunology, and biochemistry. Biotechnology includes all techniques that use living organisms or substances from organisms to produce or alter a product, cause changes in plants or animals, or develop microorganisms for specific purposes. Biotechnology encompasses several techniques and methods, including genome mapping, gene splicing (or the transfer of one or more genes with certain prospectively useful qualities to plants, domestic animals, fish, and other organisms), and molecular breeding. Although genetic modification of crops and domesticated animals has been occurring for over a thousand years, using tools such as selective breeding and hybridization, modern biotechnology speeds up the process enormously, incorporating new traits from virtually any species at will. Indeed, biotechnology's unprecedented ability to move genes within and across species, including the ability to move genes across distantly related species, and potentially even between animals and plants, makes it a powerful tool for modifying nature.

Although the first biotechnology-based foods entered the marketplace in 1994, by 2001 over 50 modifications involving 13 crops had been approved and produced on more than 128 million acres (52 million hectares) in at least 14 countries. The bulk of commercial applications of biotechnology are concentrated in agriculture and food processing, particularly in the development of new varieties of food plants, diagnostics for plant and animal diseases, and vaccines against animal diseases, including reduced herbicide and pesticide use through the utilization of biological control agents. One of biotechnology's first applications included staple crops such as corn and cotton that were bioengineered to make toxins capable of killing insect pests. For example, "Bt maize" has been genetically modified to make it produce a protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that kills the corn borer insect, a major threat to maize crops. Similarly, crops such as squash, potatoes, wheat, papaya, and raspberries have been successfully engineered to resist common plant diseases, and to be kept much longer in storage and transport. Transgenic tomatoes and bananas have been developed with slow ripening properties. Genetically modified soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton have been developed with resistance to the herbicide glyphosate and are now widely used in the United States.

Biotechnology has successfully enhanced the quality of food by increasing the levels of essential amino acids and vitamins to foods traditionally lacking in those nutrients. For example, the incorporation of two daffodil genes that produce vitamin A to a rice variety (called golden rice) is a major breakthrough. If used widely, it has the potential to substantially increase the nutritional quality of diets and to reduce blindness and other threats to health in millions of adults and especially children in the developing world. Similarly, enhancing fruits and vegetables to contain vaccines against deadly and debilitating diseases, such as hepatitis, cholera and malaria, may help developing countries where such infectious diseases are rampant, especially among children. Of course, the key will be the ability to grow and distribute foods containing these edible vaccines locally and at relatively low cost.

Modifications to tissue culture, marker-assisted selection, and DNA fingerprinting now allow a faster and more targeted development of improved genotypes for crop varieties. This has enabled crops to grow in difficult environments such as those that have irregular water supplies or poor soils, to greatly reduce postharvest losses, and to strengthen a crop's own ability to defend itself against destructive insects, thereby reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Biotechnology and genetic engineering therefore have the potential to help increase productivity in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. It could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people. These developments have been hailed as the coming of a second Green Revolution, giving farmers a powerful tool in their struggle against the vagaries of nature and the age-old scourge of pestilence and disease.

Despite the potential gains, opposition to biotechnology ranges from concerns regarding the dangers of gene splicing and objections to the patenting of living organisms on religious and ethical grounds to fears of unanticipated health and environmental consequences. The harshest opposition is reserved for the "unregulated" production of genetically engineered or modified foods—dubbed Frankenfoods by some. Critics argue that there has been insufficient testing on genetically modified (GM) foods and that the benefits of such foods have not been adequately demonstrated. They point out that the potential risks of adulterated GM foods may include toxic reactions, food allergies, increased cancer risks, antibiotic resistance, and even death, as the recent out-break of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in Britain tragically illustrated. Moreover, many also see a clear potential for ecological disaster as a result of wholesale genetic pollution resulting from cross-breeding and gene transfer to nontarget plant and animal species, the creation of new viruses and bacteria, and the mutation of weeds and pests into "superweeds" and "superpests," either by accidental transfer of the herbicide-resistant genes from the crops to weeds, or as weeds and pests eventually develop resistance to pesticides and vaccines in the genetically engineered crops. Critics claim that over the long run, biotechnology will serve to greatly reduce biodiversity by deliberately promoting certain species over others, thereby reducing the genetic pool of plant and animal life, making the planet even more dependent on a handful of food varieties. Some environmental activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Greenpeace, have called for a complete moratorium on further development of biotechnology, while others have urged developing countries to refrain from producing GM foods because they may lose export markets in industrialized countries where consumer anxiety over genetically engineered foods remains palpable. Indeed, despite reassurances by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other national and international agencies that biotech foods currently on the market are safe for human consumption, the European Union in April 1998 banned the use and import of GM crops. Consumers in the European Union, Japan, the United States, and India remain deeply wary of GM foods.

Most agricultural biotechnology research has concentrated primarily on commercial agriculture and on industrialized nations' staple crops, rather than on the food needs of developing countries. Investments in crops consumed by the vast majority of people in developing countries, such as cassava, millets, sorghum, sweet potatoes, yams, legumes, lentils, pigeon peas, chickpeas, traditional rice varieties, and groundnuts, remain insignificant. Critics maintain that such a bias is deliberate, as private investment in biotechnological research is oriented toward agriculture in higher-income countries, where there is purchasing power for its products. Of equal concern, the development of substitutes for major developing country export crops such as cocoa and sugarcane could have a devastating impact on these economies. Unlike earlier Green Revolution technologies, which were developed mainly by publicly funded institutions in both developed and developing countries, and philanthropic organizations such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, modern agricultural biotechnology remains the monopoly of multinational corporations, in particular, those in the pharmaceutical and food-processing industries. At present, biotechnology applications remain concentrated among a few large corporations, including Aventis, Monsanto, AgrEvo, Syngenta, DuPont, Zeneca, and Dow. Unlike the philanthropic organizations, which literally gave away high-yielding seed varieties to developing countries, corporations have agreed only to transfer proprietary technologies at a cost—some even demanding royalties up front. Such actions inevitably raise concerns that property rights protection on the processes and products of biotechnology may prevent cultivators in developing countries from benefiting from the new technologies.

The Development of Biotechnology in India

In 1986 the Indian government established a Department of Biotechnology (DBT) under the Ministry of Science and Technology to give impetus to the development of modern biotechnology in India. The DBT has a mandate to promote biotechnology throughout the country by collecting and disseminating relevant information, developing safety guidelines, and promoting education, research, and development by establishing research institutes. India's national budget provides significant increases for research and development spending on biotechnology; since 2001, biotech firms enjoy a 150 percent tax deduction for research and development. This has resulted in the proliferation of biotech parks (hightech industrial complexes), like the Marine Biotech Park in Chennai. States like Punjab, Haryana, and Andhra Pradesh are collaborating with private promoters to build or expand biotech parks in their respective states. Currently, both the Indian private sector and government are investing heavily in the agricultural and medicinal applications of biotechnology.

India now has a fairly advanced infrastructure in both fields, and has made important scientific contributions in several areas: biological control of plant pests, diseases, and weeds; development of new vaccines and veterinary products from medicinal and aromatic plants; and enhancement of the nutritional value of staples such as Basmati rice, mustard, mustard oil, wheat, mangoes, cardamom, chickpeas, potatoes, vegetables, bananas, oil palm, and coconut. Moreover, India has a great deal of expertise in critical areas such as microbiology, chemical synthesis, immunology, and biotech equipment manufacturing. Also, patenting of innovations, technology transfer to industries, development of transgenic plants, recombinant vaccines, and drugs are now quite advanced. Several universities and colleges now have biotechnology programs, and the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology have launched advanced degree programs in biosciences, biomedical engineering, bio-informatics, and applied biotechnology. As a result, the country not only has developed a strong base of indigenous capabilities, it is well prepared to benefit from foreign collaboration. Indeed, India's biotechnology industry is increasingly serving as a research arm to major multinational corporations, with growing potential for further strategic alliances.

However, there are some major challenges. India's regulatory system for biotechnology products is bureaucratic and secretive. Currently, biotechnology products must be reviewed by both district and state monitoring committees. Then the products are reviewed by committees at the national level, including those from the DBT, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Environment. The industry has called for expediting revisions, proposing a single national regulatory agency for all biotechnology products under direct authority of the prime minister, independent of various government departments and ministries. Similarly, inconsistent policies regarding intellectual property rights in India limit the growth potential of the biotechnology industry.

Clearly, both India and the international community need to formulate a consistent policy on intellectual property rights. Consider the case of haldi, or tumeric. Haldi, an essential ingredient in curry powder, has been used in India for centuries as an antiseptic on wounds. In 1993, when two American scientists registered a patent for haldi's wound-healing properties, the Indian government mounted a successful challenge and had the patent revoked after proving (using ancient Sanskrit texts) that this was no discovery. However, such "success" has been rare. For example, despite protests by the Indian government and NGOs that basmati rice was the product of informal breeding by Indian farmers, the U.S. company Ricetec was granted patent rights for developing "Basmati 867." Ricetec successfully argued that it had developed a new higher-yielding strain. Similarly, sarson (mustard seeds), used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, was patented by a number of Western laboratories who had successfully extracted the mustard oil used for certain medicines. An extract from the leaves of the neem plant, used as toothpaste and as an antiseptic for centuries in India, was patented by several American and European laboratories, despite challenges by the Indian government. A broad global agreement on intellectual property rights related to biotechnology is clearly critical.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, India achieved dramatic increases in food production by developing high-yielding rice and wheat varieties, increased irrigated areas, and enhanced fertilizer and pesticide use. However, intensification of agriculture and reliance on irrigation and chemical inputs has led to severe environmental degradation with problems of salinity and pesticide abuse. To meet its food demand, India must attend to these challenges immediately. With the potential to increase India's agricultural productivity, biotechnological applications in agriculture could help address India's food availability challenges while preserving fragile land areas. Biotechnology may substantially increase productivity in major food crops, without reliance on chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides. It also offers possible opportunities for better soil, water, and nutritional management as well as productivity of livestock, fisheries, and aquaculture. Biotechnology offers both promise and perils. Appropriately monitored and integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products, and services, biotechnology could be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of India's expanding and increasingly urbanized population.

Shalendra D. Sharma

See alsoAgricultural Growth and Diversification since 1991 ; Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)


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