Aliens!

Weeds acquire strange resistance to herbicides. Nature seems to go haywire. And causing all the confusion are genetically modified organisms, reports Indira Khurana

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Aliens!

-- Is our quest for better food creating aliens hostile and powerful enough to overwhelm the environment? In our desire to create an apple without a wormhole are we about to upset nature's apple cart? These are genetically modified organisms (gmos): a tomato with a chicken's gene that can sit on the shelf for weeks without getting spoiled, a strain of maize that can ward off borer attacks, or a soybean produced by a transnational company which is resistant to the herbicide made by it.

Science now has the ability to tamper with the genetic codes of organisms. But what if science, in all its fervour for developing strange new foods, re-enacts the Frankenstein story: mad scientists playing god in their laboratories. Is science strong enough to protect us from the consequences of unleashing these "aliens" into the wild?

The issue has even got the royalty worrying.Delivering the Lady Eve Balfour memorial lecture in 1996, Prince Charles said, "The introduction of genetically modified organisms must proceed with caution to ensure that any benefits now are not at the expense of the safety and well being of future generations and their environment."

Once introduced into the open, a gmo cannot be recalled. The behaviour of a transgenic plant in the open is unpredictable. Gene coding for specific properties and characteristics unrelated to the plant's natural genetic structure are made to become part of the transgenic plant's genome with the help of gene technology. A situation in which the plant acquires certain new traits that make it impossible to predict its behaviour in the long run.

Transfer of the altered gene into the environment and other plants is a distinct possibi-lity under both natural and artificial conditions. The spread of antibiotic resistant markers through bacterial strains illustrates this phenomena. On ingestion, the alien dna may not be completely degraded. Therefore, the potential for gene transfer exists in the gut.

Another development, unforeseen by the proponents of gmos is the ability of dna to survive in the soil or exist in a dormant state in sea water, from where it can go virtually anywhere.

"The environment has also a profound role to play to impart control on the levels of expression of the introduced genes," says P K Ghosh, advisor in the department of biotechnology (dbt), government of India.

"Results of assessment of transgenic plants in one environment may not be valid, therefore, in other environments. Which is why countries sitting on rich plant biodiversity need to be cautious."

"There are also concerns that the use of some of these plants and their products in the human food chain could prove allergic to some people," says Ghosh. "Information on the health aspects is definitely lacking," he adds. However, he maintains that transgenic plants will be part of all future agriculture.

So weeds can acquire strange resistance, people strange allergies and nature can go haywire with modified genes introduced into the environment.

But transnational companies are going ahead full steam. The investments are large and a huge market exists in the Third World which has weak consumer protection laws and limited science capabilities to assess the adverse effects of these new products on humans.

Deadly concoctions

 Out in the cold: Warangal wai unable to identify the culprit (S litura) that appears only at night, ap farmers resorted to all kinds of pesticides in quantities that astound even the pesticide dealers, who reaped a rich harvest with sales spiralling through the roof. Little did the farmers realise that the pest had developed complete resistance to these and most other pesticides used in the region.

Methomyl is a highly-poisonous pesticide and dealers sold 20,000 litres of it in Warangal. The quality of the pesticide available to the farmers can be assessed by the story of Komala Mallaiah, a farmer from village Pedda-pur, who survived after drinking it. There are as many as 13,000 retailers in district Warangal itself, selling pesticides manufactured by some 93 com-panies. "We do not recommend these pesticides as they are highly toxic. Moreover, they are not required most of the time.But farmers do not listen to us," says Jalapati Rao, agricultural scientist working at the Agriculture Research Station in Warangal.

The pesticide lobby is very strong in the state and one the chief promoters of the switch from sustainable, low-yielding traditional cultivars to cash crops like cotton, which are susceptible to a host of pests and rely highly on pesticides. When confronted with the question of spurious and sub-standard pesticides, Ventakeswarlu, a pesticide dealer in Warangal, is quick to defend the industry, laying the blame squarely on the farmers. "We do not sell anything spurious. The farmers do not follow the instructions and mix the chemicals, destroying the chemical structure of the formulation and rendering them ineffective," he says. "The farmers here think they are the greatest scientists. They start with synthetic pyrethroid, when the mildest of pesticides can do the trick," he adds. "Only illiterate farmers are facing damage. Progressive farmers are getting good yields," says Venkateswar Reddy, a sales officer of Newchemi, a pesticides company.

The New Delhi-based Pesticide Association of India (pai) also washes its hands off quality control and the sale of spurious pesticides. "The problem of the quality of pesticides rests with the state governments. It is for them to implement their regulations," says F C Mathur, executive director, pai. Clearly, the government has failed to educate the farmers about appro-priate application of pesticides, nor has it been able to check the sale of spurious pesticides.

A fall from grace
ap is the producer of Suvin - one of the finest cotton varieties. Before 1970, the state produced only 200,000 bales of cotton each year. The Nagarjunasagar dam project in the 1970s changed all that. Area under cotton cultivation and production shot up. Cotton is cultivated in the districts of Guntur, Adilabad, Kurnool and Prakasam, spreading to Warangal and Nellore in the last few years.

Farmers have shifted from self-sufficient paddy-pulses-vegetable crop rotation to the more profitable cotton cultivation under government patronage, starting a pesticide treadmill. On an average, a farmer cultivating cotton gains Rs 2,835-4,050 per hectare (ha) - impossible with other crops. In Warangal district, for instance, village after village shifted over to cotton, but soon began to face pest attacks. "In Warangal, S litura is like a voracious army, eating just any crop it can find, even plants of coriander," says Tewari.

Supported by good rains and favourable weather, harvests have been plentiful for the last several years, but not without warning signals. Severe pest attacks occurred in 1987 and 1994. Several farmers had committed suicide, unable to clear their debts. In the urge to reap higher yields and to make up for accumulated debts, more land was brought under cotton and more money was borrowed to increase the inputs.

But in 1996-97, the monsoon failed. Nearly 70 per cent of the cotton area in ap is rainfed. In Warangal, the worst-affected district, only 942 mm of average rainfall was recorded. In the 1997-98 monsoon, this came down to 771.8 mm. The normal annual rainfall is 1048.1 mm. The rains failed to arrive in the June-August period, when intensive irrigation is required. Moreover, there were excessive rains in October-December, the harvesting season, when it is least required. Excess moisture or poor drainage is not suitable for cotton.

The cotton crop was not expected to be very good this season. Enter S litura and H armigera in numbers never seen or heard of in this region. S litura is a nocturnal insect that eats away the entire cotton plant.

Although farmers burn the insects by basketfuls, the female can lay up to 4,000 eggs, ensuring that populations keep rising. In district Warangal, yields have fallen from 1500 kg/ha to 300 kg/ha due to the pest. The attack has been worse in rainfed areas. The American bollworm attacks the fruit of the cotton plant, which then starts to fall off.

"The fields should be called insectories rather than cotton fields," says Tewari. Entire stretches of standing crop were eaten away overnight. According to I V Subba Rao, vice chancellor, Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University (angrau), Hyderabad, who visited the affected areas: "All the pests known to scientists were there to see on all the crops; something I have never noticed in my 50 years of experience," he says. In an effort to rescue the situation, farmers bought large amounts of pesticides on loan. About 200,000 kilolitres were sprayed in district Warangal itself, a new record for ap , the state that accounts for 33.6 per cent of the pesticides used in the country. Nearly 50 per cent of pesticides used in India are applied on cotton, an indication of just how vulnerable cotton is to pest attacks. About 130 species of insects and mites have been recorded under Asian conditions. In the Indian subcontinent, five sap feeders and four bollworms are commonly found, say Raheja and Tewari in The Environment Friendly Way in Crop Pest Management , a publication of the icar.

Losses in the field
Crop losses in district Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, due to various pests in area, intensity, tonnage and monetary value in 199-98
Name of post
Extent of damage in hectares Percentage of crop affected Yield loss in metric tonnes Value in Rs lakh
S litura 86,427 80 43,213 10,371.24
H armigera 76,490 50 2,947 5,507.28
Prink bollworm 80,400 45 36,180 8,683.20
White fly and jessids 70,480 30 8,810 2,114.40

Source: Agriculture department of Andhra Pradesh

White gold rush

 The   mandi   in Warangal has cotton is referred to as Tella Bangarum , or white gold, in ap . India has the largest area under cotton cultivation in the world, about 75 million ha, but is fifth in production, which stands at 13,500,000 bales per annum. "The average cotton productivity of the world (552 kg,ha) is significantly higher than that of India," says P C Bansil, director, Techno-Economic Research Foundation, New Delhi. In ap , it covers an area of 0.63 million ha, with a total production of 137,000 bales per annum. Major cotton-growing districts are: Guntur, Prakasam, Khawmam, Nalgonda, Adilabad, Kunrool and Warangal.

A ll the four cultivable species of cotton in the world -- Gossypium hirsutum , G barbadense , G arboreum and G herbaceum -- are grown in India.Approximately 60 million people depend on its cultivation, marketing, processing and export for their livelihood. Exports of cotton, its products and by-products earned the country Rs 6,000 crore in foreign exchange in 1994.

The best part of Indian cotton is its extreme diversity and ability to grow under extremely divergent agroclimatic conditions, though its yield potential is low. It is sown throughout the year in different parts of the country. A lot of hybrids of the four main cultivable species - about 80 varieties in all - are also cultivated. The major cotton growing states are Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Since the First Five-Year Plan (1951), the government has given priority to cotton research and production. Over 46 years have gone by, with nothing to be proud of. With the largest area under cotton production, the average yield per hectare is still below the global average, even though inputs are intensive. Pest attacks are now taken for granted. Pests survive pesticides. Pest resistant varieties remain a distant dream.

To step up cotton production from the Seventh Plan (1985-90), the Indian government is implementing the Intensive Cotton Development Proramme (icdp) in 11 states. It includes the integrated pest management programme (ipm). "The icdp is being implemented in a uniform manner and is not location-specific, as it should be, since constraints and problems are location-specific," says Bansil. In Punjab and Haryana, the problem is of rising water table; in Tamil Nadu it is scarcity of water. "In ap , too many varieties are being cultivated. This creates problems for the supply of government-certified seeds and efficient control of pests and diseases," he explains.

Indian varieties of cotton have been replaced by new varieties that are more responsive to nitrogen fertiliser, but more vulnerable to predatory pests. Now, all cotton growing states complain that G hirsutum (an American variety) is input-intensive and highly risky. The improvement in yield is at a price: it requires 150-200 kg/ha of nitrogen fertiliser. Moreover, its susceptibility to pests demands large amounts of pesticides, which means additional costs. The production levels achieved after all this do not justify the rising input costs and labour charges.

The forgotten plan
The importance of pest control in agriculture has been recognised by the government as far back as 1945, when the Indian Famine Commission concluded: "If full benefits of irrigation, manuring and improved varieties are to be assured, effective action must be taken to deal with diseases, pests, worms and weeds... crop protection is an important factor..." Accordingly, the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage (dppqs) was set up in 1946 at Faridabad, Haryana, under the Union ministry of agriculture. One of its tasks was to introduce innovative technologies such as the ipm programme. Training and research centres were established in 1957-58, and work initiated in 1981. A number of policy changes followed. The outlay for the ipm programme in the Eighth Five-Year Plan was raised to Rs 4.5 crore from Rs 0.312 crore in the previous one. Human resource development programmes were initiated for field trainers who were to then train the farmers. The government promised to phase out subsidy on pesticides and to extend the revenue to the ipm programme. This, it promised, would promote the production of biocontrol agents and help phase out or ban the use of hazardous pesticides.

ipm is an ecological approach to manage pests.

Control methods deal with cultural, mechanical, biological and chemical practices. It is based on selective and timely application of pesticide and use of biological agents, including mass production and large-scale field release of natural predators of pests.

Sucking pests like the white fly are checked by their predators and parasites. ipm programme for cotton has been demonstrated to be technologically as well as economically viable for the farmers, reducing the use of pesticides.

The dppqs claims to have trained 12,000 field workers and 77,000 farmers. The ipm unit for the icar claims to have a successful package for cotton, which includes measures to deal with the infamous Spodoptera litura. Yet, training, awareness and all, the extension workers have failed to guide farmers towards ipm. "Farmers want their crop protection to be an instant kill," says Raheja. "They do not want to play the wait-and-watch game with pests, waiting for slow acting crop protection agents to act, and then use pesticides as the last resort," he adds.

" ipm is a location-specific and self-regenerating system, and will work only if there is a mass movement," says M C Diwaker, director of ipm at the dppqs. "The pesticide lobby pumps in new and more potent agrochemicals to manage resistance, thus creating further problems. Pesticides do not offer any long-term solutions to the pests. Rather, they create problems for long. ipm , on the other hand, augments natural predators, increasing biodiversity," he adds.

But farmers will not change their practices only for scientific reasons. They need to be convinced of the economic viability. " ipm has yet to be adequately demonstrated to the satisfaction of farmers," admits Raheja. Despite having 32 central surveillance systems for pest monitoring and forewarning, information provided is inadequate, and the application of pesticides akin to a post mortem, feels Diwaker.

All provisions exist - laboratories to check the quality of inputs and extension workers to advise farmers, among others. "Over 200 extension workers have been trained in ap itself, who have in turn trained thousands of farmers. Yet, what is the effect? Do you think any more of them is going to make a diffe-rence? When provisions are in place, obviously something is seriously wrong in our implementation that needs to be given serious thought," says Tewari.

The turkey buzzards

-- The daggers are drawn -- and its a fight to the finish between the biotech industry and the environment groups in Europe. While the former wants to push its products into the market without any discrimination, the latter wants better regulation, the right of the public to know and to choose and more transparency. Finding the going tough, cash-rich multinational companies have been eyeing the Third World countries as a major market, since this is where the larger markets and therefore, larger profits are. Here research is meagre, knowledge is poor and there is hardly any public debate.

With a blissfully ignorant public, weak governments with weaker laws, incessant demand for food, and an internationally binding biosafety protocol -- a legal mechanism to ensure safe transfer, handling and usage of gmo s -- yet to be framed, Western biotech companies are dumping their products into these countries.

Some of the major issues that are being decided in the North are whether these products are required or not, the safety of letting loose transgenic plants into the environment and the labelling of genetically modified products so that consumers at least know what they are getting.

Target India
Though India has set procedures to be followed even before research in genetic engineering can be approved, the genetic engineering advisory committee itself flouts the laws that it has set up. Furthermore, there has been no debate on the issue between the public, the scientists and the bureaucrats. No attempts have been made to educate the public and even gauge their opinion.

"As of now, genetically engineered plants seem to be the only viable option to increase production," says P K Ghosh, advisor at the department of biotechnology (dbt) and member of the reviewing committee on genetic manipulation (rcgm) and genetic engineering advisory committee (geac).

Approval for commercial release of gmos rests with the ministry of environment and forests(mef). However, till date, there is no system by which import of transgenics by the ministry of food can be controlled. The directorate general of foreign trade (dgft) may allow the import of soybean, quite blissfully unaware of the fact that the import could contain transgenics. dgft has never consulted the mef and. therefore , it has no idea whether transgenic produce has entered India. Currently India does not have technology to detect transgenic seeds. With declining crop yields and increasing population, there is a need to increase national awareness of the issue of transgenic food production. Trial by field
Most contemporary Indian transgenic research is directed towards plants containing Bt toxic genes. The three private companies involved, namely, Proagro pgs India Limited, New Delhi, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (mahyco) , Mumbai, and Rallis India Limited, Bangalore, are working on transgenic experiments using information acquired from their respective foreign collaborators. (see table: Hot plants)

Proagro- pgs is conducting glasshouse experiments in Gurgaon on transgenic tomato seeds containing a Bt gene. It has also imported transgenic mustard from pgs Belgium and is conducting field trials since 1994 at Gurgaon (Haryana) and Bangalore. The company is analysing the transgenic tomatoes' resistance to Indian fruit worms. The company also plans to conduct glasshouse experiments on transgenic eggplant (brinjal) containing the Bt gene.

The second field trial is being conducted by mahyco in collaboration with Monsanto on imported transgenic seeds of cotton containing Bt genes. The tests are being held at Jalna, Maharashtra. The experiment will evaluate the resistance of this transgenic cotton to bollworm, which is responsible for an annual loss of Rs 160 crore in India. Monsanto and mahyco plan to launch their bollworm-protected cotton in India by the year 2000.

It is anticipated that transgenic mustard genes may be marketed in India by 1999. Transgenic cotton containing Bt toxic gene and transgenic tobacco containing Bt genes may also be commercially available in India soon. By the year 2000, products such as transgenic tomato, brinjal, cabbage and cauliflower containing different Bt genes may also be available in the Indian markets. Other products like transgenic rice, soybean and sugarcane are likely to appear after 2000.

Hot plants
The status of research in India on GMOs
Institute Plants/crops used for transformation Genes inserted Desired trait and current status of the project
Central Tobacco Research Institution, Rajahmundri Rice Bt gene Insect pest resistance. Ready for field evaluted
Bose Institute, Calcutta Rice Bt genes Insect pest resistance, Ready for greenhouse testing
South Campus Delhi Mustard/rape seed Rice Bar, Barnase, Barstar disease resistence To develop suitable hybrid cultivars. Ready for greenhouse experiment
National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow Cotton Bt gene For pest resistance. Laboratory stage
Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Simla Rice   For pest resistance. Laboratory stage
Central Potato Research Institute, Simla Potato Bt gene   For pest resistance. Ready for green house trails
Progro PGS (India), New Delhi
Brassica/Mustard





Tomato




Brinjal
Brastar, Barnase, Bar




Bt gene




Bt gene
To develop better hybrid cultivars suitable for local conditions.

To develop pest resistance. Greenhouse experiments in progress

To develop pest resistance. Greenhouse experiments in progress

Going nowhere

-- One of the major decisions taken by the Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd), which came into force in 1993,when over a 100 countries ratified the Treaty, was to work out a foolproof biosafety protocol. Even though Chapter 16 of Agenda 21 of the cbd document deals with the 'environmentally sound management of biotechnology,' the protocol still remains a distant dream. The third meeting of the open ended group set up by the Conference of Parties (cop -countries that have ratified the convention) for the development of a protocol met in Montreal in October, 1997. Due to lack of consensus, most of the text was bracketed, which will now form the basis for further negotiations when the group meets again in May, 1998. The sailing promises to be all but smooth.

The first major decision taken by the cop -1 held in November 1994 in the Bahamas was the establishment of an ad hoc biosafety working group because of pressure from g -77, China and some countries from the North. The ad hoc working group was set up to consider the need for and modalities of a biosafety protocol and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The countries of the South stressed the urgency of a biosafety protocol since multinatio-nal companies from the North had already started trials in these countries. Against this background, to protect the interests of the South, a legally binding protocol was essential. As expected, the us and the European Union preferred voluntary guidelines, to protect the interests of the powerful biotechnology lobby in their countries.

As a lot of money has been inves-ted in the biotechnology industry by top multinational corporations, who feel that it is now time to reap dividends, efforts to establish a protocol are being hampered. When these products are released, it will be like letting the genie out of the bottle. While environmentalists feel that assessment of the ecological impact of these products is far from complete, companies do not want to wait and are pushing their products. Moreover, impact assessment, which should be done on a case by case basis, is expensive and time consuming. Evidence against these products, however, continues to mount.

At the cop-2 meeting in Jakarta in November 1995, the us and eu insisted that the terms of reference be confined to a protocol on transboundary transfers, while g -77 and China wanted to ensure that aspects of safe handling and use were not entirely excluded. Limited success was however possible because of the untiring efforts of ngos. In 1991, when the cbd was being negotiated, the eu was insistent on the inclusion of a protocol. It changed its stance in cop-1, because Germany, France and the uk changed their mind. It was finally decided that a 'legal mechanism ensuring safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms and their products that may have adverse effects on the conservation of biological diversity' be worked out.

Christine von Weizsacker, a leading environment activist based in Bonn, Germany, and vice- president of the leading European environment group ecoropa is disgusted. " usa , which has not even ratified the cbd has no right to interfere. But still it is trying to sabotage the whole process of designing a biosafety protocol even when the cbd signatories agreed in 1995 to constitute a legally binding protocol. It sends the largest contingent to the cop for biosafey negotiations," she says. "The extremely strong biotech lobby in the us is devising a means of slipping through persecution if indeed a disaster due to biotech does occur," she adds. Legal experts and public relation persons from Monsanto, a premier biotech company, seed breeders and other chemical companies are present in all cops.

Though biosafety was not one of the issues discussed during cop -3 in November 1996 at Buenos Aires, the cop reinforced its support for a twin track approach through the promotion of the United Nations Environment Programme (unep) International Technical Guidelines for safety in biotechnology.

Progress in developing a suitable protocol has not been a bed of roses. Developing countries realise that the market is within their countries: whatever progress is made in transgenics in developed countries is going to be targetted towards them, posing serious threats to their environment and human and animal health. Though countries like the us , Japan and Germany have strict legislation in their own countries, they are putting spanners in the progress of the protocol. While the us has strongest liability rules for itself, it does not want the same at the international level. So, while the South insists that the exporting country bear the liability and risk costs, the North refuses. Always in need of food, Third World Countries are succumbing.

Falling like nine pins
Egypt and Brazil have already succumbed to the arm twisting. In July 1997, Egypt's health ministry caused an uproar when it issued a decree saying imports of commodities meant for human consumption had to be accompanied by proof that they were not genetically altered. In October, they ended up eating their words.

Egypt dropped the plan to require labels for imports of farm goods containing gmos - a result of "negotiations" between the Egyptian ministries of health and agriculture, and us agriculture secretary Dan Glickman. "Egypt has finally agreed that imported products not containing gmo s, or containing gmos approved for commercial marketing in the country of origin, do not have to be certified," Glickman said.

Brazil, caught in its trap of providing natural soybeans to other countries, is today facing a shortage in its own domestic industry. On October 8, 1997, Brazil authorised the import of 1.5 million tonnes of us soybean (containing at least 15 per cent of Monsanto's transgenic Roundup Ready Soya), thus, effectively overturning its import ban on gmo s. The decision was made under pressure from both the Brazilian processing industry and the us department of agriculture (usda).

Making millions
Monsanto is a big multinational company with a massive range of products. "Like all other companies, it is making sure that it does not sink even if biotechnology does, by splitting up the genetic engineering company from the chemi-cal branch producing herbicides and medicines," says Christine von Weizsacker, "European companies are following suit," she adds.

The company has been making waves, though not for the right reasons. Producer of a genetically modified soybean that is resistant to Roundup (a herbicide produced by Monsanto), the company is all set to storm the market in the eu. Soybean is used in 60 per cent of eu's processed foods, including soups, sauces, cakes, confectionery, packaged foods and vegetarian foods like tofu. By 1999, the company plans to launch 40 new biotechnology products for controlling plant diseases and increasing crop yields. The going, however, is not going to be easy for Monsanto. Greenpeace activists have called the company "a corporation of poisons, genes and swindle."

Trying to improve its image, Monsanto has employed public relations experts to underplay health and environment related issues. It has roped in a British advertising agency to persuade the consumers in the uk to accept genetically modified foods and to salvage its sagging image.

In limbo

-- Should gmos be banned or should caution be exercised in their introduction into the environment? If so, the need of the hour is a strong law to protect countries of the South.

The us has already set the precedent by banning transgenic cotton resistant to the pesticide bromoxynil. The us Environment Protection Agency (usepa) believes that bromoxynil can cause cancer and birth defects.

The premise on which companies operate needs to be reviewed. It might help if biotechnology research were to concentrate on creating better products rather than come up with products requiring large doses of toxic chemicals.

The loss of the world's plant genetic resources due to current agricultural practices could be hastened by the irresponsible use of transgenic plants.The release of gmos into the environment has the potential to disrupt the relationships which underpin evolution and ecological stability. Introduction of novel traits in wild organisms may alter their biology, upsetting the local ecosystem. While some transgenic crops could become noxious weeds, others could transfer new genes to wild types which could then assume weed status. Persistent reproduction by these transgenics could also erode diversity. Transgenic products may have an effect on non-target species, affecting species that have not been part of any study.

Biotechnology could have an adverse socio-economic impact also. It could effect exports by replacing traditional crops. High return crops could affect nutrition, resulting in an unbalanced diet.

Though it is not the same thing there are lessons to be learnt from India's crossbreeding programme in animal husbandry. There are a host of Indian domestic milch and draught animals adapted to the Indian environment. Extremely hardy and resistant, requiring low inputs in the form of feed and care. In an attempt to introduce high-yielding breeds foreign strains were crossbred with Indian domestic livestock. It was only later that farmers realised that though these strains produced more milk they required more feed and specialised housing. Therefore the expense on them more or less offset the gains from them. Moreover they were not hardy enough for the Indian environment.

Nevertheless, an unrestrained crossbreeding programme resulted in the proliferation of crossbreds and pushed Indian breeds into isolated pockets in the interior of the country and to the brink of extinction. Worse was to follow. While the productivity of the first generation crossbred Indian stock was high it declined drastically with each succeeding generation. In the end, farmers were left in a lurch.

Furthermore, foot and mouth disease, a consequence of germplasm import, today costs the government Rs 2000 crore annually. This crossbreeding fiasco has a message. A worse situation could come about due to the introduction of gmos. While Indian breeds can still be saved if sustained efforts are made, once modified genes run amok it could lead to an ecological nightmare.

"While transgenic plants may be a solution to food security, we must be very cautious, more so in the case of gene transfer within species," says R S Paroda, director general, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi.

"The very fact that microbes, plants and animals are so very different speaks for itself. There must be some logic behind this," says P K Ghosh. And he may be right.

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