Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bt Cotton Should Be Formally Approved: Interview/ C. S. Prakash

Bt Cotton Should Be Formally Approved: Interview/ C. S. Prakash

Biotechnology is a fast growing area filled with controversy. Is it the answer to Malthusianism? Or is it a Frankenstein's monster? To get answers to these questions, Sauvik Chakraverti spoke to Professor C S Prakash, who teaches plant biotechnology at Tuskegee University. He also advises the government of India on these matters. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

*What is your reaction to what happened in Gujarat regarding the release of Bt cotton seeds?

- It was inevitable. For two years, the Indian regulatory authorities have been dragging their feet on the issue. On June 19, they had absolutely no logical, rational or scientific reason to say 'No'. My reaction is of mixed delight. But I would not like to condone any illegal cultivation of unapproved biotech crops, since it undermines consumers' confidence. The situation the government finds itself in is like finding your daughter pregnant. There is no other choice but to get her married. So, I do hope that the use of Bt cotton will be formally approved and that farmers will not have to go for contraband seeds.

* Do you think that the popular adoption of genetically modified seeds in Gujarat is something that was waiting to happen in India? Did you expect the farmers to adopt Bt cotton, given all the protests and demonstrations we have seen around the world?

- Definitely. It is just that farmers have finally spoken out. We knew all along that, given a choice of superior solutions, farmers make rational decisions, based on simple economics and cost-benefit analyses. Quite rationally, they are willing to bear additional costs if these bring them substantial returns.

* What do you think explains the contrast between the reaction of environmentalists overseas and in India? While internationally they have gone around uprooting trial fields, in India they have not entered any field planted by farmers.

- It is surprising that Indian environmentalists are now so quiet. Earlier, they maintained that BT is not good for Indian farmers, that the technology has no value, and that we have to preserve the existing system of saving seeds for the next planting. The fact is, these environmentalists have absolutely no knowledge of farming and do not speak for farmers. So, when real farmers get involved, environmentalists do not have any say.

* Did the company that released this BT variety violate IPR regulations?

- No, they did not since the patent has not yet come into effect. What they did violate is the bio-safety regulation of the Indian government. Under it, any genetically modified product requires a local approval before it can be released into the environment or commercialised. India has a two-step approval process. We have six years of Indian data on Bt cotton, and so far its agronomic performance has been spectacular. There is not one single safety incident of any concern. The irony is that India imports over ten lakh bales of cotton, much of it being Bt cotton from such places as Australia and China. It is absurd that we force our farmers to spend on pesticides, given the often irresponsible manner in which these are used, rather than just approve Bt cotton.

* The introduction of genetically-modified products has been slow since existing food and environmental regulation is based on the precautionary principle. If this principle were to be thrown to the wind, what is the worst case scenario?

- The worst case scenario would be the introduction of minute levels of allergens into food. Take the case of peanuts. Some people are highly allergic to them and may have a fatal reaction from eating just one. Now assume a genetically-modified chickpea, in which one peanut gene has been introduced. A peanut-allergic person would have to eat about a tonne of chickpea to get the same level of protein present in a single peanut. In fact, there is far more danger in eating normal food.

The reluctance of the Indian authorities to approve Bt cotton has interesting historical parallels. For instance, when the first motor car was introduced in England, the British government ruled that the speed limit should be five miles an hour. Moreover, regulations required someone to walk in front of each car and announce its imminent arrival. Needless to say, the development of the motor car was blocked in Britain.

Similarly, electric lights were banned in Britain for thirty years after they were first introduced, due to the gas industry lobby. Italy has absolutely little or no corporate bio-medical research, due to overt regulation, despite its robust economy and high per capita income. Mindless regulation is similarly killing agricultural biotechnology in Europe.

Everything has a risk, but that the risk must be put into its proper framework. About 300,000 children die in India every year due to rota virus, which causes dysentery and diarrhoea. A vaccine was developed in the National Institute of Health, Washington, but was abandoned this year since it caused rashes in few US children.

In the United States, just one or two children are hit by rota virus every year. The risks in vaccinating against this virus are, therefore, unacceptably high. It is outrageous that the Americans shelved the vaccine, given that in India the risk factor is irrelevant. Every society must look at risk for itself.

* Please explain the BT concept for a lay reader.

- BT stands for 'Bacillus thuringiensis', which is a common soil bacterium. This bacterium has been used as an organic pesticide for about forty years. When you spray the bacillus onto the plant, caterpillar larvae eat it. The bacillus is only toxic to caterpillar larvae. It does not kill butterflies, beetles or bees. However, the bacillus never caught on commercially as a pesticide, because it gets degraded in the sun. Farmers have to keep on spraying all the time. Genetic engineering came along and took the Bacillus thuringiensis gene and put it straight into the relevant crop plant. So the plants produce the protein, instead of it having to be sprayed on.

*So, if BT was sprayed and the product was sold, it would be called organic food?

- Ironically, yes.

* What about the growth of resistance to other pests?

- If Bt cotton is used too much, pests may become resistant to it. This, in any case, is likely to happen even with spraying or antibiotics. This is why we are telling farmers that 10 per cent of their crop should continue to be regular cotton. Pests can feed on that and not be compelled to adapt. This strategy seems to have worked. There are millions of acres under Bt cotton cultivation, yet no pest has developed resistance.

* What about the gene flow issue?

- Look at rice, for instance. After they discovered dwarf rice in Taiwan, every rice became dwarf because we put that gene into all popular rice varieties around the world. This is because dwarfness is a big asset in agriculture. Not one single wild rice has acquired this dwarf gene, despite thirty-five years of dwarf rice on probably 250 to 300 million hectares. The point is that dwarfness has no positive selection value in a wild rice. Even if the gene were to be there, it would just get eliminated.

So there are two ecosystems - the man made one and the wild one. The man made one began with the domestication of grain, mainly for making alcohol. The rice was shattering, so man collected a mutant where the grains did not shatter.

The seeds in the wild are always dormant, and now are germinating immediately depending on their survival mechanism. We are making sure that they do not germinate on the stock itself and also that they do not stay dormant for too long.

So we made a lot of little changes. Take the instance of corn that is in the wild, it looks like a small little pencil. But modern corn is about two foot long and big. They were all changed over ten thousand years. So, if you put most of the modern varieties of crop food plants into the wild, they would not survive for one day. It is like taking a little Chihuahua or Daschund and throwing it to a pack of wolves. It would not survive for one hour. So, similarly, except in a few instances, these new varieties are of absolutely no evolutionary significance.