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  Twenty Years of Modern Agricultural Biotechnology

In 1973, Cohen and Boyer transferred a gene from one organism into another.      
In 1982, the first biotech plant, an antibiotic resistant tobacco, was developed.  
In January 1983, at a meeting of genetic researchers in Miami, three different
teams reported success in using Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium,
to carry new genes into plant cells, heralding the dawn of modern agricultural
biotechnology.   Agrobacterium tumefaciens, described as a “natural genetic
engineer”, splices its own genes into host plant cells.  This pathogenic bacterium
was now converted into a pack mule, to carry new, foreign genes into plant
cells, minus the disease and this became the most common means of producing
Genetically Engineered Organisms (GEOs).  

Field tests for GE crops resistant to pests and pathogens were first conducted in
the US, in 1985.   A co-coordinated framework for the regulation of GEOs was
established and the first GE tobacco was released, in 1986  .  The US Department of Agriculture published guidelines for field trials of GE crops in 1991.  

On approval from the Food and Drug Administration, Flavor Saver, the first GE tomato, with a longer shelf life, was on the US markets in 1994.   During 1995-96, GE soybean, corn and cotton were approved for commercialization, in the US.

A number of GE crops, developed for pest, pathogen and herbicide resistance, are now commercially cultivated in several countries.   Rice with pro-vitamin A, higher iron content, or human milk proteins and potatoes with high protein content are in various stages of development.    Tobacco plants producing functional human haemoglobin and bacteria that produce human insulin have been developed, as well as plants with vaccines against rabies and other viral diseases.   Food grain crops that withstand drought and salinity are high priority research, and so are those for high yield.   A GE tobacco plant detoxifies soils contaminated by explosive residues, providing solution to a frustrating environmental problem in countries ravaged by armed conflict.  

Now more than 70 biotech agricultural crops that have been approved for use in North America, including varieties of soybeans, cotton, canola, corn, potatoes, squash, tomatoes and papaya.   About six million farmers in some 17 countries now cultivate GE crop on about 125 million acres, a 30 fold increase over 1996.   By end of the year 2002, six GE crops planted in the US (soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola) produced an additional four billion pounds of food and fibre on the same acreage, improved farm income by US $ 1.5 billion and reduced pesticide use by 46
million pounds.   In 2003 in the US, 80 per cent of soybean acres will be planted with biotech varieties.

A number of activist groups vehemently attack GE technology and its products on grounds of safety to humans and the environment, and costs of technology transfer and its reach to the needy.   Products of agricultural biotechnology bear the brunt of this ill-informed, unscientific and prejudiced onslaught much more than GE products related to health or industry. 

In 2001, the European Community released results of a 15-year study, costing US $ 64 million, and involving more than 400 research teams and 81 projects.   This report concluded that GE products pose no more risk to human health or the environment than conventional crops.    So far, extensive and intensive research on the probable risks of GE technology has not brought out any adverse effects and none of the fears expressed by anti-tech activists were proved even marginally.  
Nevertheless, caution and examining issues case by case, is the watch word of technologists, who are aware of their responsibilities.

For a number of products, technology transfer is free of costs for developing countries, as for example Golden Rice, the rice with pro-vitamin A.   It is the responsibility of the Governments of the respective countries to bear the costs of developing local varieties and to reach the products to the needy at an affordable cost.

In India, three GE varieties of pest resistant cotton were approved for commercialization, a year ago.   Approval for other GE varieties of cotton and GE mustard was deferred twice by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the highest authority on the issue.

In India, the level of public awareness of the realizable benefits and probable risks of GE products is abysmally low.   The functioning of the GEAC leaves much to be desired.   Taking advantage of this hazy situation, mixing up economic, social and political issues with science, and even using such vagaries of nature as the severe drought, several groups of vested interest have created mistrust, confusion and scare.   Trashing a very promising technology this way does not augur well for the future of Indian agriculture.   This results only in denying the benefits of technology to the farmers and consumers.

The next 20 years of plant biotechnology is expected to improve quality of life, through improved foods, pharmaceuticals, new industrial materials and a better environment.    These benefits should reach the people of the developing world, who need them most.   For India to benefit from these developments, it is urgent and essential that the public is educated on the realizable benefits and probable risks related to GE products.   We also need to reorganize the mechanism of regulating GE products by providing for an expedient, transparent and responsible authority.   The media have a very important role to play in this regard.   Only an informed and reassured public can make viable choices.  Every effort should be made to provide such an opportunity to the consumer. 

June 20, 2003

Professor C Kameswara Rao, Executive Secretary, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, No. 1, Gupta’s Layout, Southend Road, Bangalore 560 004, India
Ph: 91-80-6549470, 6534740, E-m: krao@vsnl.com; Website: www.fbae,org