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January 28, 1999


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Business Commentary/ Darryl D'Monte

Confusion, extreme views cloud the brave, new genetic world

Considerable confusion has been caused by fears that the US multinational Monsanto has been given permission to conduct field trials on the so-called “terminator gene” in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

As company officials clarified at a recent consultation on genetically modified plants at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Madras, to coincide with the Science Congress, an Indian seeds company, Mahyco, based in Jalna, in which Monsanto has bought a 26 per cent interest, has been given the green signal to conduct trials only with a genetically engineered cotton seed.

No field trials have been conducted anywhere in the world with terminator genes, which prevent seed from replicating and thereby compel farmers to buy their requirements for each crop.

Such is the distrust of multinational seed companies that the militant farmers’ organisation, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, has whipped up a frenzy over the alleged introduction of these killer genes and filed a criminal suit against Monsanto. In neighbouring Andhra, when officials learnt of the cotton trials, they were incensed because they had not been informed and banned them. Only the US Department of Agriculture, which unabashedly promotes agribusiness, and a company called Delta & Pine Land, which Monsanto is about to acquire, has the terminator patent and this technology is not being introduced in this country.

However, one should not dismiss this misinformed opposition as the work of some lunatic fringe, as top scientists at the Science Congress did. Indeed, Professor James D Watson, who won the Nobel prize with Professor Francis Crick 40 years ago for the DNA double helix, was the most vicious in condemning those opposed to genetic engineering. He alleged that the greens were “fourth rate scientists” who were not concerned about meeting the needs of the future and nothing but “shits and incompetents”.

Dr Ganesh Kishore, a top scientist with Monsanto in the US, was only a little more charitable when he quoted a Chinese proverb: “Even a fool can ask a million more stupid questions than a wise man can answer.”

While Professor Watson could wax eloquent about the 21st century being the age of biology and Dr Manju Sharma, director of the Department of Biotechnology in Delhi, reported that the Congress delegates unanimously agreed that India should go ahead with genome research, many other scientists are asking questions about this technology.

Genetically modified organisms or GMOs, by having genes implanted in them, are supposed to be resistant to many pests and thereby capable of higher productivity.

In the case of Monsanto’s cotton seeds, these have genes from a soil bacteria, abbreviated as BT, which poisons the bollworm pest, which has devastated the crop throughout the country. As much as 40 per cent of the pesticide consumed in this country is on cotton, an expenditure of Rs 16 billion -- of which anti-bollworm insecticide alone accounts for Rs 4 billion. The use of BT cotton, its proponents say, will save farmers this expense.

Although scientists make out that such engineering is nothing new – by crossing varieties farmers themselves have been doing so for aeons – they have been using natural methods, while biotechnology resorts to manipulation. There are several reasons why any country, particularly one which is so dependent on agriculture, should proceed cautiously before introducing these GMOs.

In a September 1998 issue of Nature, scientists from Chicago University have found that mustard plants engineered to be resistant to a DuPont weedkiller have passed on their new genes to nearby wild mustard plants 20 times faster than would occur naturally. This “gene-jumping” poses a very grave danger.

In the US itself, Monsanto has decided not to pursue development of a strain of sorghum resistant to the company’s Roundup pesticide because of the possibility that this resistance may be passed on to sorghum’s wild relative, Johnson grass. It is like a gigantic genetic lottery, the outcome of which no one can predict.

Genetic manipulation raises many serious moral and ethical questions. GMOs in agriculture are only a decade old and it is too soon to predict how safe they are. The patenting of life forms raises even more fundamental issues since it can extend to humans.

Some 13 years ago, a certain John Moore had his spleen removed at a California hospital because he was suffering from cancer. He signed a consent form which said that his spleen would be destroyed after removal.

However, a hospital doctor cultured some cells from it and found it produced a special protein. Moore knew nothing till his lawyer told him that the doctor had received a patent on a cell line and obtained a US patent titled “Mo”, claimed to produce valuable compounds for cancer therapy. The Swiss pharma giant, Sandoz, obtained exclusive rights to the use of this patent for $ 15 million. When Moore demanded the return of his body cells, the California Supreme Court ruled that he was not entitled to these once they were removed from his body.

European countries have been far more cautious than North America, Australia and Japan in permitting the use of genetically engineered products . In October last year, the European Parliament Environment Committee proposed a moratorium on all new applications for marketing such products. For instance, Australia and Luxembourg have banned sale of the controversial maize developed by the Novartis company, which contain an insect poison which is also insect- and herbicide-resistant.

Britain is contemplating a three-year ban on transgenic crops and summoned heads of biotech companies based in Britain, including Monsanto, for discussion regarding a voluntary code which would postpone widescale planting of such crops till 2002.

Britain’s first bioengineered crop, a rape oilseed which can withstand a chemical weedkiller, is due to be grown this year. Dutch environmental organisations are demanding that foodstuffs containing oil from transgenic oilseeds should be labelled – a practice which companies are fighting tooth and claw. A Danish supermarket chain has already begun such labelling.

The attitude of scientists, both in the public and private sector, in the face of such grave doubts about transgenics is disturbing. At the Science Congress, Dr Peter Raven, a top office-bearer in the US National Academy of Sciences, said that it would be “criminally irresponsible” to introduce any moratorium on research on GMOs, presumably on the ground that this would be holding up benefits for mankind. Not a single scientist from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the Department of Biotechnology appears to have the slightest hesitation about introducing these crops in the country.

Professor Watson, who has thrown caution to the winds, perhaps because of his age and eminence, actually made out a case for allowing “someone to get sick” with the use of such technology before regulating it and stressed that recombinant DNA was safe as long as it remained in the laboratory. The danger, of course, is that once such know-how is perfected, there are tremendous commercial pressures, aided and abetted by official agencies, to market it.

Although Dr Manju Sharma claimed in Madras that there was a foolproof inspection and regulation system in the country for transgenics, there is reason to doubt its efficacy. The very fact that the vice-chancellors of agricultural universities from Karnataka and Andhra, who were also present, denied that they knew about the trials of Monsanto’s BT cotton in their states, speaks for itself. Representatives of Monsanto and Mahyco, along with those of other Indian seed companies, resisted any attempts to call for stricter regulations on the industry. There is also the danger of transgenic seeds being smuggled into the country, which is reportedly already happening.

The Madras consultation, which was heavily loaded in favour of proponents of genetic engineering, called for the establishment of a National Commission on Genetic Modification of Crop Plants and Farm Animals, which would enforce a precautionary package for the safe use of GMOs. This would include codes for experimentation and field testing, the application of national and international protocols, surveillance, examination of toxic or allergenic effects, compulsory labelling and public information.

Darryl D'Monte

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