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It is Good for Us in Any Climate
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

I always appreciated the policy of AgBioView in projecting a balanced view of agricultural biotechnology by giving an opportunity even to committed anti-technology activists.   In contrast, I have sent several articles to the trashcan through AgBioIndia.   However, I cannot help considering that articles like that of Suman Sahai (Economic Times, November 16, 2002, posted on AgbioView) do not enlighten the members of AgBioView, since science is not the mainstay.   
Craig Cormick should be happy to know that activists in India share the traits and platform with those in Australia, in purposefully distorting, and selectively interpreting science and scientific data, apart from repeatedly exhibiting, their contempt or ignorance of science.
The only thing sane and acceptable in the article in Economic Times is that the GEAC is not functioning the way it should.   Accountability, transparency and communication with the public are totally absent and decisions are arbitrary.   The yardstick applied to Bt cotton last year, and to GM mustard this year, are not the same.   Even the recommendation of the Review Committee is not accepted for GM mustard, as of today.   If the GEAC does not put in the public domain, the data they receive and the basis of decisions taken, they not only open their broad side to the activists, but also put the future of biotechnology regulation and product development in India at great peril.   The officialdom in India has never been sensitive to be accountable to people and to a large extent there is public apathy as well.  This does not augur well for the growth of a responsible democratic government and society.
The article in question is titled to say that in ‘today’s climate it can’t be any good to us’.   In the past there were hundreds of technological developments that were not good in that ‘today’s climate’ and on the later ‘today’, people did not even realise that there was apprehension and opposition, as for example with telephone and computers.   Those who sit in judgement of things, in the name of Indian agriculture and the poor farmer, should make an attempt to visualise of what would be good in the coming times, because everything changes in time and nothing can be protected for ever, for whatever reason.   If this vision escapes them, we better ignore them.   If a technology is not introduced in whatever incumbent climate of a particular day, that technology will not become available all of a sudden in the climate of the later day, however much it is needed.
Any product, television sets and cell phones for example, are expensive when they are introduced and in course of time they become much more affordable.  Bt cottonseed may be three times (not four times) more expensive than non-Bt cottonseed but the difference in the total farming in puts by way costs of pesticide used and the labour is substantial.     We also should not forget the benefits in terms of preventing health risk to the manual labour spraying pesticides without basic precautions like facemasks and then the harm to the non-target fauna and the soil.
It is always a race between the breeder and pests/pathogens, the latter being a step ahead of the former.   We have never predicted what new pests/diseases will be appearing, but only found measures to combat the known ones, as they came in.   No one has ever said that resistance to Bt proteins would not develop. The purpose of the refuge is just to break down the resistance so developed or at least delay it.   The refuge is not a 100 per cent wash out, though the yield from it is substantially low.   The FBAE is trying to impress upon the GEAC to permit non-cotton refuge of alternate hosts, so that there are some better economic returns from it.
No technology can be aimed at dealing with all economic, and certainly no political, problems.   All developments in science and technology may not have been readily accepted by a society, but only in course of time.   One of the jobs of the scientific community is to reduce the time gap between introduction and acceptance, though awareness programmes.
If cotton prices have fallen, it is not due to the introduction of GM cotton.   Why no one blames the currently grown varieties cotton for the problem?   The solution is elsewhere, such as the agricultural policy framework.   Instead of working towards changing retrograde policies, the activists blame technology, when this technology has hardly had a chance to show up on the country’s agricultural scene.   Can anyone guarantee that blocking Bt cotton and cultivation of only non-Bt cotton solve the economic problems?  The purpose of Bt cotton is to offer protection against the bollworm.   The purpose of GM mustard is to provide with high quality, high yielding, and hybrid crop.
The stability of the gene construct in GM mustard has been demonstrated very convincingly.   Will any one of the critics spell out the ‘good non-GM alternatives’ to produce a high yielding hybrid mustard (why hybrids in the first place?) and what are the ‘other undesirable effects’?   Such vague pronouncements do not constitute to scientific debate.
Several wild species of the genus Brassica and the family Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) are self-incompatible and therefore, cross-pollinate, by default.   These species have provided very valuable information for the basic understanding of pollen-stigma interaction and the genetics of compatibility.   Basic textbooks do not mention that self-incompatibility barriers have disappeared in the course of time during domestication and that cultivated Brassica’s are self-pollinated, presenting very serious challenges to conventional hybridisation.   Natural hybrid production systems are not available in mustard yet and none to be had in the near term.   Male sterile lines coupled with a fertility restorer female line are the only answer in such a situation.    
The drift of mustard/canola pollen is less than 50 meters, as was shown by a number of field trials.   Activists like Dr Sahai question the veracity of these data, without providing any reasonable evidence.  They believe that mustard is an open pollinated crop and therefore will ‘contaminate’ wild and weedy relatives.   Can we have the list of sympatric (and also panmictic, if authenticated) wild relatives of mustard?   There is no scientific evidence of risk from gene flow.   A mere drift of pollen does not ensure hybridisation, due to factors of viability of pollen.   A number of studies have shown that beyond 10 meters, gene flow through pollen in these crops is not even 0.1 per cent.   Simply because a GM variety contains ‘foreign’ genes, it is not more promiscuous than the native varieties.   Native varieties are capable of greater mischief.   What on earth makes people believe that there was no inter-crossing between cultivated species/varieties and their wild relatives before the introduction of GM crops?
Information on the performance and consequences of introduction of new varieties of crop plants can only be assembled on cultivation for some years.   Lack of information at the time of introducing a new variety does not automatically make it bad for the consumer, the environment and the country.
Whatever technology and/or products are introduced at different times, the ultimate choice is that of the customer.   Three decades ago there were very forceful attempts to popularise the use of soybean in south India and so far as I know, it never took off. 
There is an evaluation and regulatory system in India that is supposed to be making sure that only effectively performing varieties are released to the farmers.   Granting that the system might not be functioning perfectly at present, it is the duty of all the members of the civil society to demand better performance from the regulatory agencies and to work together to improve the system.
GM technology is not even a decade old.   It is ridiculous to expect it to be deployed in all the food crops at the same time.   If GM millets are not available today, that is no reason to prevent the introduction of GM mustard.   How many activists who speak for millets actually depend on them? 
MNC phobia is a pathological condition.   People who suffer from this disease should set an example by first throwing out their toothbrush and toothpaste and resort to charcoal and salt, mango or neem twigs (these are actually more beneficial than the paste and the brush).   If their cell phones follow the toothbrush, it will set a shining example.   Why those who oppose MNC sponsored GM technology, do not oppose the large scale and patently harmful use of MNC pesticides?   Is it all right to use herbicides but not herbicide resistant varieties?
It is unethical to attribute dishonesty to the GEAC or any one who is concerned with the regulatory process, without proof.   Corruption is not confined to the official institutions.   Where is the guarantee that the anti-GM-lobby is not similarly ‘bought’, by some other manipulator?
Sixty five per cent of the farmers in India hold less than two acres.  Are such smallholdings conducive to economical agriculture?   What happened to the farm co-operative institutions that are supposed to unify smallholdings into operationally convenient and economically viable larger farms to adopt mechanisation and modern technology?
It is often argued that modern agricultural practices affect manual farm labour by depriving them of livelihood.   Do we want to retain these people from generation to generation and permanently as daily wage earners at the subsistence levels?    As long as the farm work is available they would never make any serious attempts to improve their lot by looking for better alternatives.
People who proudly say that they were exporting spices, cotton and silk centuries ago, have no business to talk against globalisation.   Shortsighted policies made India one of the least competitive in the world, forcing substandard products on the consumers for half a century.   We have been good only to export cheap manual labour, and it does not make a difference if this is keyboard operators.
Many farmers in this country do not know that there is what is called an aeroplane, which some people use to fight for farmers’ rights.   Many farmers do not also know that there are concerted campaigns protecting the farmers’ honourable position of an exhibit in the Museum of Defunct Agricultural Technology of India.   If these farmers become rich, their well-wishers have to go below the poverty line.   
Professor C Kameswara Rao
Executive Secretary
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
Bangalore 560 004, India
Ph.: 91-080-6549470, 6534740;
E-m.: krao@vsnl.com;  Website: www.fbae.org