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Public Sector Will Lose Out in GM RaceNEW DELHI, APRIL 29:
Back in the 1980s, Shanthu Shantharam monitored the first Bt cotton trials in the US as branch chief with the US Department of Agriculture. Today, as president of Biologistics International, he has a vantage view of India’s half-hearted embrace of GM.

‘‘If a public sector company is treated at par with private companies, it will never be able to come to the market,’’ Shantharam warns. ‘‘There is no way the public sector can pay for the regulatory costs as it exists today.’’

GM technology has been attacked because it is controlled by the private sector, and GM farmers would be at the mercy of MNCs. In India, Monsanto subsidiary Mahyco pursued the Bt cotton approval for seven years before they got permission for five states. It took another two years before two Indian companies managed to get approval for the same gene.

The scene is even more dismal for other crops. Proagro, a company in the race for GM mustard, was asked to return time and again before they decided to give up.

But why doesn’t the public sector — with its vast network and infrastructure — come up with a cheaper variety of Bt cotton or other GM crops? According to Shantharam, it’s because they do not discover genes. ‘‘They almost seem to be suffering from an inferiority complex. The protocols of buying or importing a gene for further research takes years,’’ he said.

Public companies, Shantharam said, should be similar to corporate bodies. ‘‘They have to have a business plan, product development plan and stage-wise development plan till, say, 2010,’’ he said. ‘‘There have to be options from which the most economically viable ones are salvaged and the rest junked.’’

Shantharam, incidentally, worked with Syngenta, Switzerland, when it was developing its Golden Rice and rice genome. He has two decades of experience in the harmonisation of biotechnology regulatory policies.

‘‘There has to be a blockbuster gene that will make GM crops a huge hit,’’ he said. ‘‘Blockbuster genes are elements that overcome environmental challenges like drought or upgraded nutritional value like the Vitamin A rice.’’

The Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai, incidentally, is already working on rice that grows in saline areas. Shantharam has doubts about the yield benefit of GM in crops like wheat and rice, where effective hybrids have already pushed the limits.

But the misinformation campaign against Bt gets Shantharam’s back up. ‘‘We have set up a Foundation for Biological Awareness in Bangalore that works with young scientists on countering these claims,’’ he said.

Shantharam would also like to change the broad regulatory rules that exist in India today. ‘‘Most regulators are so nervous that they avoid decisions and instead try to find technical faults. GM companies should be asked to generate transparent data on field trials that can be shared with the world and reviewed by scientists,’’ he said.
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The latest issue of Plant Physiology (July 2008; Volume 147, Issue 3) has a special section on next generation of biotech crops especially on nutritional improvement.  These papers can
be downloaded free!

Influence of Transgenosis on the Plant-Insect- Relationships, in Particular on Chemically       Mediated Interactions

Effect of Transgenes Conferring Enhanced Pathogen Resistance on the Interaction with Symbiotic        Fungi in Rice

Impact on the Soil Ecosystem through Natural and Genetically Engineered Organisms:
      Effects, Methods and Definition of Damage as Contribution to Risk Assessment

The Decomposition of Bt-Corn on the Fields and its Impact on Earthworms and on other        Macroorganisms in the Soil

Environmental Post-market Monitoring of Bt-maize:
       Approaches to Detect Potential Effects on Butterflies and Natural Enemies

Columns by Dan Gardner

Against the Grains: 'The Terminator Hoax '

Decisions taken in the 84th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee

Brazilian Health Biotech: Fostering Crosstalk Between Public and Private Sectors

Biotechnology Related Article Appeared on 'Samyukta Karnataka' ( Regional Language )
June 12, 2008.

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