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Indira Nath
Nature 456, 40; Oct 30,

Developing countries have joined the front lines of the biotechnology revolution in health and agriculture.

We are living through an unprecedented era of progress in biotechnology.
Consider what has already been achieved. Thanks to an extraordinary international effort, scientists have sequenced the genomes of humans, plants and animals. This has led to the discovery of DNA signatures for a growing number of human and plant diseases. There has also been considerable progress in identifying both drug-resistant microbes and 'transmission hot spots', which can serve as the epicentres of epidemics.

Now, consider what scientists might achieve in the future. Projects include new ways to bioengineer circuits with DNA, complete with mechanisms that allow cellular computing, programming and communication between cells. In the field of synthetic biology, researchers have built long stretches of DNA and synthesized viruses that link DNA fragments using methods akin to computer-based engineering. Toggle switches, oscillators, and pattern-forming and edge-detecting devices that are currently under design could lead to bio-computers that sense abnormalities in the body, including the emergence of cancer cells, which can then be made to self-destruct.

In developing nations, biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize food production and health care. In agriculture, for example, researchers are using DNA-based technologies to create pest-resistant, higher-yielding plants for both normal and environmentally stressed soils.

Biotechnologies are also a key to 'bio-fortification'. Vitamin A deficiency, which, if untreated, can lead to blindness, affects millions of people in over 100 countries, mostly in the developing world. Anaemia caused by iron deficiency is another common condition in the undernourished population.

To help combat these and other health problems, biotechnology is creating plants that are 'fortified' with vitamin A, iron, micronutrients, proteins and antioxidants. One of the best-known examples is rice enriched with vitamin A (golden rice), which was first developed in 2000. Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Philippines and Vietnam now fund research and development programmes to enrich local rice. The United Nations estimates that, by 2015, the world will need to increase food production by 50% if we are to avoid global food shortages. Biotechnology will be a critical tool in meeting this goal.

Yet, several hurdles stand in the way of progress, especially for developing countries. First among these are intellectual property rights (IPR). These are often legally restricted to individuals, companies and universities in the developed world, rendering access to critical technologies expensive and time consuming. A second hurdle is the opposition of interest groups concerned about biotechnology's impact on health and the environment.

Together, these hurdles can make the introduction of biotechnologies in the developing world problematic.

The example of golden rice is a case in point. Some 70 patents held by 30 companies and universities - all in developed countries - protect the technologies used in the production of golden rice. Following a major lobbying effort, IPR holders granted licenses to allow the royalty-free sharing of technology with people in need. However, many interest groups in the North and South remain opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops, which might pollinate non-GM crops. Such opposition is a recent phenomenon. By contrast, earlier commercialization of transgenic tomatoes, maize and soya bean faced no opposition.

Cross-pollination issues can be minimized with newer technologies. Furthermore, pollination occurs continually between wild and cultivated rice varieties without leading to ecological changes.

There is no doubt that biotechnologies (in common with all new technologies) come with risks as well as rewards. Thanks to many studies and assessments, we can be confident that GM plants are safe for human consumption. Yet, large segments of the public continue to harbour suspicions towards the use of biotechnology. Such perceptions cannot - and should not - be ignored.

Another worry, shared by both the scientific community and the larger society, involves the potential misuse of biotechnology by those seeking to create weapons capable of doing great harm. Biotechnology research functions under a rigorous international regulatory regime. No fewer than 15 international codes, designed to maintain public safety and environmental health, govern the regulation and trade of GM organisms.

So, what should developing countries do to ensure that they stay aboard the 'biotechnology train'? The ultimate goal should be to create an environment conducive to innovation. This requires training an adequate number of scientists and technologists, building proficient universities and research centres, providing ample funding, forging strong international links and opening up broad channels of communication.

To help ensure that developing countries gain the full benefits of biotechnology, governments should offer incentives to companies to produce the kinds of products that are most beneficial to their populations, such as vaccines against childhood diseases. Yet, it is crucial that in their efforts to promote innovation, governments achieve a proper balance between public good and private profit. In India, for example, Shantha Biotech has developed a yeast-based recombinant hepatitis B vaccine that has reduced the price from Rs400 (US$9) to Rs25 (US$0.60). India, Brazil and Cuba are all producing recombinant therapeutics and vaccines through collaborative arrangements between academia and private companies.

Biotechnology holds great promise for developing countries. Yet, this promise can only be fulfilled if these countries build the capacity needed to reap the benefits of this cutting-edge science and technology.

Indira Nath (TWAS Fellow 1995) is director of the LEPRA-Blue Peter Research Centre in Hyderabad, India.

Indian Cotton Farmers Pip US Counterparts In Farm Income
- The Hindu, Nov. 20, 2008
Indian cotton farmers have earned more income per hectare than their US counterparts, thanks to the adoption of genetically modified technology developed by companies like Monsanto, says a UK-based agri-economist.

"Farmers in developing countries like India are having better farm income benefits compared to the US, Australia and Argentina," agri-economist Graham Brookes told PTI.

After paying for GM technology, cotton farmers in India have earned an additional average income of 225 dollars (Rs 9,956) per hectare between 2002 and 2006 against 94 dollars per hectare in the US and 133 dollars per hectare in Argentina, he said.

However, the earnings of Indian cotton farmers are lower than that of Chinese farmers, whose income per hectare is about 294 dollars, Brookes, who is the director of PG Economics, which provides advisory and consultancy services on plant bio-technology and agricultural markets and policy in the UK, noted.

"India has made tremendous growth in GM cotton. Farmers have earned total 1,294 million dollars additional income since the launch of the GM cotton in 2002," he said.

GM cotton was developed and commercially launched in India by Mahyco-Monsanto and it is currently grown in over 75 per cent of the total cotton area.

"Looking at the speed of adoption in India, the average income benefits in the coming years would be more than two billion dollars," he said.

Quoting his study on GM crops, he said a larger share of income benefits have been earned by farmers in the developing countries like India.

"Cumulatively over the period 1996 to 2006, developing country farmers have acquired 49 per cent of total 34 billion dollars farm income benefit," he said.

New Crop Technology Brings Joy to Bhatinda Farmers
- The Times of India, Nov. 17, 2008
BHATINDA: The fields look like they're covered in snow. Except they're not. In Bhatinda, genetically modified cotton is king and farmers are reaping the benefits of a good crop. But all was not well till a few years ago. In fact, as recently as 2002, the crop was on a decline in the state of Punjab.

Back in 2002, Gagrana village's Mewa Singh was on the verge of commiting suicide. A Rs 7.5 lakh (1 lakh = 100,000) debt and declining yield left him with no other option. ''It became impossible to survive,'' he says. But that was then. Today Mewa Singh is a happy man. He cultivates Bt cotton on his five-acre plot and as a result of higher yields and earnings he has paid back his debt and has purchased a new tractor, motorcycle, and has sent his son to study in Punjab University.

Gurtej Singh Siddhu, also from Gagrana, proudly shows off his newly built pucca home, Siddhu House. "I have spent Rs 20 lakh on this house," says Siddhu, pleased with his decision of using Bollgard Bt cotton seeds. "Life has changed. My father was facing crop failure every year because cotton from the older seeds was afflicted by an insect known as spodoptera, making it useless," he adds. Siddhu's produce has increased to 12-14 quintal per acre, compared to only six quintal per acre with conventional seeds. "My income has risen by Rs 32,400 per acre, enabling my family to lead a better life," he explains.

The shining faces of farmers in Bhatinda are all thanks the new biotech technology that has renewed their cotton crop, locally called 'narma'.

Mahyco Monsanto Biotech was the firm that brought the Bollgard technology to India in 2002. MMB has sub-licensed the Bollgard II and Bollgard technologies to 23 seed companies, each of whom has introduced the Bollgard technology into their own germplasms. Bollgard cotton provides in-built protection for cotton against destructive American Bollworm Heliothis Armigera (locally called American gundi) infestations, and contains an insecticidal protein from a naturally occurring soil micro organism, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

Amidst the many challenges in agriculture, India's Bollgard Bt cotton success story stands out as one of hope and pride. From a net importer of cotton with production at 158 lakh bales in 2001, India is now the world's second largest producer and exporter of cotton, with production at 315 lakh bales.

Bollgard Bt cotton is India's first biotech crop technology approved for commercialization in 2002. This was followed by Bollgard II in mid-2006, by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the Indian regulatory body for biotech crops. Approximately 4 million farmers cultivated Bollgard Bt cotton seeds on 76% of the total 225 lakh cotton acres in 2008, up from 72,000 acres in 2002.

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