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  India’s Biggest Annual Biotech Show Ignores Agricultural BiotechnologyC Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
Bangalore, India

Bangalore Bio (BB), an annual event since 2001, organized by the Karnataka Vision Group on Biotechnology, supported by the Government of Karnataka, is styled by the organizers as ‘India’s biggest biotech show’.  The Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE), which in its own words a ‘collective face of Indian biotech industry’ is a powerful supporter of BB. 

The pharmaceutical sector has an overbearing presence in ABLE and BB’s annual conferences but BB did have some conspicuous component of agricultural biotechnology on its programme during all the previous years.  There were well received Public Lectures on agribiotech, which were inexplicably discontinued after 2006.  Even at the BB 2008 meetings there was an ‘Agribiotech Day’ focusing on four areas. 
The BB’s 2009 brochure proclaims ‘Biotechnology beyond boundaries--the promise of India’.  Yet, disturbingly, agribiotech is totally missing from the BB 2009 programme.   BB’s 2009 brochure lists some 55 speakers with none from agribotech.

In contrast, at the recent conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Atlanta, USA (May 18-21, 2009) with about 14,500 participants on the theme ‘Heal, Fuel, Feed the World’, there were over a dozen diverse sessions on biotechnology in food and agriculture.  Even so, a number of participants felt that agribiotech did not get its fair share. 

The 6th Biospectrum-ABLE Biotech Industry Survey listed 282 biotech companies in India (Biospectrum July 2008).  There are 30 agribiotech and 53 plant biotech (whatever this means) companies.  There is only one nanobiotechnology company, but stem cell research companies were not identified.  Thirty eight companies are involved in bioinformatics, which is not exactly biotech.  Some one should explain how 53 listed companies that do only clinical research and trials qualify to be classified as biotech companies, unless the terms ‘biotech’ and ‘life sciences’ are deliberately mixed up.  How many of the remaining 107 companies are truly biotech, meaning modern biotechnological concepts, protocols, tools and products?   The majority of the pharmaceutical and industrial biotech companies operates on the basis of age old technologies but jumped on the bandwagon of biotechnology to garner prestige, publicity and benefits.  Dr Krishna Ella (Bharath Biotech International) said that ‘by strict definition of biotech, which is recombinant, the Indian vaccine market is only about Rs. 1,000 to 1,600 crore, including the sales of the MNCs’ (Biospectrum July 2008). 

Against this background, one wonders why AMUL and United Breweries find no place among biotech companies, when they are rooted in fermentation technology with impressive turnovers.

Of the top 10 Indian biotech companies three are agribiotech.  During 2007-08, vaccines contributed to about 47 per cent of the total biopharma revenue of Rs. 6,900 crore, while therapeutics (36 per cent) and diagnostics (17 per cent) constituted the rest of pharma market and all this was not from legitimate or modern biotechnology.    In comparison, the market share of agribioetch was a respectable Rs. 1,200 crore.  The vast majority of the agribiotech companies are sub-licensees of the gene constructs and only very few are actually involved in R & D. 

It is a serious lapse on the part of BB 2009 to ignore agribiotech, an important component of the Indian biotech enterprise.  Pharmaceuticals are needed by the sick, healthy people need vaccines to prevent disease, but agriculture is essential for everyone. 

The agribiotech industry has not been projecting itself adequately and has to blame itself if it is shortchanged.  The All India Crop Biotechnology Association comprised of agribiotech companies is comatose and never did anything effective in support of the agribiotech sector.  The handling of antitech activism by the agribiotech industry has been very sloppy.  They should have strengthened the hands of the Government of India in opposing the two Writ Petitions seeking a moratorium on GE crops in India filed in the Supreme Court.  As the companies were not made a party in the WPs, they did not bother.

“Miss it! If you don’t belong to Biotech sector”, the organizers of BB 2009 proclaim.  Agribiotech misses it.  Is it because agribiotech does not belong to the biotech sector in BB’s reckoning?

Why did not the agribiotech companies stand up against this insult or do they see only diminishing returns from their investment in BB and kept out, if the decision was theirs?

This is unfortunate, at a time when the agribiotech sector faces many problems, such as severe antitech activism, which the pharma and industrial sectors do not.  This is the time for the unity of all biotech sectors.  Together they should address several important issues such as getting the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority on the book, counter the persistent and vehement antitech campaign based in junk science, defend the technology and the country’s robust regulatory regime in the Supreme Court, and enhancing awareness to prevent public opinion from being hijacked by the activists.

June 4, 2009