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Saving Agbiotech in India

Prof. C Kameswara Rao
AgBioView, July 14, 2003


The happenings in Andhra Pradesh to malign agbiotech, which are sure to follow in other states, are disturbing.   More alarming are the signs of the campaign getting physical to destroying standing crops and the personal risk to the farmers themselves.   This is where the State Government should get ready to step in and deal with the situation as a Law and Order issue.

The arguments for and against biotechnology must be based in science.   In India public awareness of issues related to biotechnology is abysmal.   Even educated public, including some biologists, do not have a clear perception of the benefits and risks of agbiotech.   The general policy of the Government of India is pro-technology, but its departments have not been involved in the area of public awareness and education programmes in any appreciable manner.   The Governments of the States are busy releasing policy documents that focus on biotech business, with products nowhere in sight.   In India the state of biotechnology education itself is in a deplorable mess with hype and reality at opposite poles.   The biotech industry has done precious little to educate even farmers using their products, let alone the general public.   The media only care for sensational news like demonstrations and vandalization.    They have not been enthusiastic even about getting educated themselves, and are not equal to the task of playing any constructive role in enhancing public understanding.  While some Muslim religious bodies and the Vatican have come in support of biotechnology, religious authorities in general are in the dark.   The activists have been taking advantage of this huge information gap, and mix up ethical, economic and political issues, to spread misinformation and to create scare in the public mind, from the emotive and sentimental platform.  

It is high time that a far-reaching programme of public awareness and education is set in motion in India.   Countering the sustained attack on agbiotech requires a considerable financial support.  While the activists are functioning with a lot of financial backing from organizations with vested interest in maligning biotechnology, those who are pleading for a chance for agbiotech to prove or disprove itself in course of time, have no resources to speak of.  

The agbiotech industry has not fully realized its responsibility to help the cause of disseminating factual information and to assuage the doubts and fears of the public.  Conducting workshops and seminars, sparsely supported by one or two agbiotech companies or the Department of Biotechnology, has its own undeniable benefits but it does not go much beyond the urban scene.   The agbiotech industry should realize the seriousness of the consequences of anti-biotech campaign and its own moral responsibility in the matter, and come forward to fully support public awareness and education programmes.  I made a case for such a realization of the industry’s responsibility, at a Syngenta Lecture in Basel, last February.

If an organization or a group of individuals supportive of biotechnology conducts a programme with funding from the industry, they immediately win the label ‘toadies of the industry’, whereas the anti-biotech lobby, that receives huge funding from mostly European Luddite greens, parade as the protectors of the environment and patriots protecting their countries form the marauding multi-nationals.   Both the supporters of technology and the industry should join hands and work together in the common cause of biotechnology.   Simply because an organization receives financial support from the industry, should not mean that the organization sold itself and blindly supports every product disregarding ethics of science and public interest, which are as important as the technology itself.

A better option would be for the various agbiotech companies to form a neutral body that receives and pools up funds from the Indian industry and supports public education activities of proactive organizations and educational institutions.    At the international level, there are such bodies like Crop Life International, receiving funds from the industry and in turn support biotech related activities.   A national level body would minimize the procedural and time hassles.  

Can AgBioWorld Foundation work toward this end?

All this will take time, but something must be done on an urgent basis to counter the anti-agbiotech campaign first in Andhra Pradesh and subsequently in other parts of India.   In the Indian epic Ramayana, Kumbhakarna, who would go into a comatose sleep months on, woke up when his services were needed.   Would the agbiotech industry wake up and support the cause at least now?

Professor C Kameswara Rao,
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
E-mail: krao@vsnl.co