There are ample facts to support biotechnology

CLIVE JAMES, chairperson, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications gives T V JAYAN and CLIFFORD POLYCARP his prescription for feeding the hungry world

Published: Friday 15 October 2004

Is transgenic technology the only option to solve problems faced by agriculture today?
Yields from major cereals have virtually saturated. And the global population is expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2050. Now, how do you feed 9 billion mouths? Organic agriculture can at best feed 4 billion people -- that leaves 5 million unfed. We might do a little better with currently conventional agricultural technologies -- adapted germplasm improved through conventional means. These will give us a agricultural growth rate of less than one per cent per annum, but even that will leave a couple of billion people unfed. Therefore, it seems that taking the best of conventional technology and using it in conjunction with new technologies is our best option for the future.

But will that increase production?
Yes. Biotic stresses -- insects, diseases and weeds -- are estimated to reduce yields in many countries by approximately a third of the actual potential. In fact, farmers in most tropical countries have to contend with a number of crop-ravaging insects -- tropical climates are propitious for a variety of such creatures. But use of biotechnology can mitigate the losses of these farmers, quite substantially. For example, a recent AC Nielsen survey shows that annual yields of the cotton crop can be improved by 29 per cent in India by application of bt cotton. In a conventional programme, the yield increases only by 1 per cent a year.

Poor farmers around the world save and store seeds for the next cropping season. And here is a technology that requires them to go to the marketplace each time they need seeds. Isn't that a paradigm shift?
Look, one axiom drives farmers world over: reap more than you sow. So, even a small subsistence farmer operates in exactly the same way as a large agriculturist. Roughly, they expect Rs 2.50 on an investment of Rs 1. And, if a technology -- conventional or genetically modified (gm) -- does not yield such returns it is very likely that a farmer would discard it. As many as 75,000 to 100,000 Indian farmers have bought Bt cotton seeds because, on an average, they get a net benefit of us $ 150 per hectare. Besies, Bt cotton significantly reduced pesticide use. Of the seven million farmers all over the world who use biotechnology today, six million are very small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries. So, there are ample facts to support biotechnology.

New seeds are relatively less attacked by existing insects: so isn't it a bit too early to talk about benefits?
Pest-infestations follow a pattern when conventional technology is used: a low-scale infestation is followed by a medium-level attack and then a high-level strike. Conventional technology therefore does not ensure consistent returns, while biotechnology guarantees precisely that. And investment on gm seeds yield more even when compared to the low-infestation scenario.

But a US university study has showed that pesticide use had actually gone by about 30 per cent with GM crops
Just one study! That was by Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the us National Academy of Sciences' agriculture board. And even his data can be interpreted very differently: in fact, many agronomists have used the same data to indicate a 20 per cent decrease in pesticide use. Besides, there is a much more rigorous study by Leonard Gianessi of the us National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, which shows that herbicide use in the us has gone down by 30,000 metric tonnes after farmers started using gm seeds.

Shouldn't unforeseeable risks of biotechnology be factored in?
One should never look at biotechnology as a solution to all problems. Like any other technology, it has its strengths and areas that need strengthening. Take Bt cotton. We started 10 years ago with a single Bt gene. Today, we have two backups ready. We have the Chinese fused genes and also Bollgard II with two genes, each of which have different mechanisms of resistance. Even before resistance to the single gene is broken down, two more genes are available. That doesn't solve the problem completely but provides a more efficient tool to deal with breakdown. The battle between humans and the insect will continue as long as we are there.

How is it possible?
Co-existence has been practised throughout history. If you look at the seed industry, in the production of new seeds one has to provide purity in order to provide quality of product. That means that one has to employ isolation and you have look at all that issues that allows you to contain the seed area. When you produce hybrid seeds that is necessary. The seed industry has got all these rules. How do you get organic agriculture? Recent publication by Graeme Brookes about three months ago looked at the issue of organic agriculture in the UK. The general thinking is that this is a huge market and that if we do not provide organic food to people in the UK it would be a disaster. But what do the figures show? The figures show that 99.8 per cent of food produced in the UK is conventional. Only 0.2 per cent for organic. How are you going to deal with that? You deal with the majority or you deal with minority? Happily, you don't have to make the choice. Because, in fact you can grow organic agriculture, even if you grow 500 per cent to 1 per cent, quite using the rules of co-existence.

What about their concerns with the technology, such as genetic contamination?
Let's take a look at some of the issues in relation to Bt cotton as an example. Resistance has already been identified as the key issue. Resistance is a phenomenon that is not just related to GM, but to conventional technology as well. In organic farming, the Bt gene is used as a conventional insecticide. In last eight years we have grown almost 75 million hectares of Bt corn and Bt maize. It hasn't broken down yet. But you have already got an example of Bt breaking in normal insecticide application. It has broken down when it is used as a regular insecticide. Using it as a GM gene, it hasn't broken down. We believe it is a safe product. It is a biological pesticide, exactly what they are recommending. And the efficacy with which you can use it as a GM gene is much higher than the insecticide. So, what is the concern? You are using the same product. You are using it in a safer way and you are using it in a more effective way. And you are using it in organic agriculture. So, the pieces simply do not come together. You are able to reduce the amount of total insecticide because you are using it in much more efficient way. That is one of the issues.

The other issue is gene flow. We know that throughout the history of agriculture there has been gene flow. Whenever you grow two crops together, that would have two different germplasms, they are going to exchange. But, that is the way the evolution is taking place. If you look at the maize, the pre-cursor of the maize in Mexico is teosinte. That was a completely different crop. But, maize evolved from it over a period of time. In Mexico, today, farmers pick the best ears and keep those for the next season. So, selection has been happening all the time. All the evidence that have been gathered through classical trials, mainly in the UK, show if these genes do escape, that is not detrimental.

Let me give you another example. When you spray Bt on to corn plants, because the borer goes into the stem, it is very ineffective. If you spray on 100 units, probably one unit gets in there. Physically, it is difficult for you to get it in. So you are wasting the insecticide. It is the worst of all worlds. You use money, you use insecticides, but you have no control. Having the gene in there, in the plant, gives you effective control. Once in fact you have the control, you have less damaged tissue. Less damaged tissue means less opportunity for the fungus fuserium to colonize the tissue. Fuserium produces micotoxin, fumonisin. It is demonstrated that fumonisin causes cancer in the liver of rats. There is a circumstantial evidence to show that the cancer of liver in areas where there is a high intake of maize. Last year in the UK, three shipments of maize were withdrawn. They happened to be organic maize. Why were they withdrawn? Because they had much much higher levels of fumonisin that 2 parts per million allowed. So, there is an example where a product from GM one is safer, not as safe, as as usual the case, but safer than products from the conventional technology. So the question is: if you invoke the precautionary principle, which means that you reject the technology where there might be a chance without scientific evidence that this is an unsafe product, what do you do in a situation where you show a clear advantage in favour of GM. Will you reject it?

Unfortunately, this technology has been labeled as something new. What it actually does in a different way is accelerate what could be done before. In terms of crop improvement, you are able to do what do you did before in much shorter period of time, allowing you the possibility of improving the access to food, feed and fibre. So, the major issue, I think, is that homosapiens do not deal with change very well. He prefers to stay with the status-quo, even though it is much more dangerous situation.

Most of the benefits of the new technology go to the seed firms based mainly in the US. And the technology comes at a cost. For a country like India, which has a budding biotech industry, is the cost of acquiring technology through technology transfer (by paying royalties) or the cost of waiting for development of an indigenous technology dearer?
There are several points here. First, if you look at the published data what they call surplus that is generated has been divided between farmers, developers of the technology and the rest of the world. In each, farmer is the major recipient of the income. If that were not the case, the farmer would not buy the technology. If that return is not 2:1, then he will not adopt the technology.

Out of six seed multinational firms three are from Europe -- Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science, and BASF -- and three are from the US -- Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Dow Agro. Therefore, this is not a North American technology. It is a view that critics propagate. In any war it is the infantry that get killed because they are at the forefront. In this case, it's Monsanto. We have found them to be very generous. We have gone to them asking for technology for countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The answer has always been yes. They not only gave the technology free, but also trained people so that there is no dependency.

As with any new technology, right at the beginning it is only a small group that controls it. That group takes all the risks and in the case of biotechnology that require deep pockets over a long period of time. Even the US government could not make these investments. It was the large multinational that took on the risk. It was a big risk at that time given all the regulatory issues and all the opposition. That is changing quite rapidly. The first place where it changed was in China. That move by China to make public investment in this technology through academics to develop Bt cotton in exactly the same way as Monsanto did is an indication where the lead countries from the south will go. I see increased investment in the public sector in India, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. Remember this technology is still only eight years old. What you are asking of it is as if it has been around for 50 years. It is quite remarkable to me that given all the constraints that we had associated with that technology that today you have 68 million hectares.

What do farmers think about the technology? Well, we talk about illegal technology. That is one way to assess what do they feel about it. They beg, borrow and steal to get it. If it is not available through official channels, they will get it through illegal ones. Brazil, as you know, grew millions of hectares in the south, when the technology wasn't approved. They just borrowed it. That is the word they used. So, I think what you see with this technology is that it will be cheaper, it will be easier to develop it. As you see right here in India, public sector technologies are now being developed. What you see is competition between public and private sectors. That is already happening in China. An interesting question to ask is how does the public sector develop the product. The answer: exactly the same way as the private sector. They develop it using proprietary technology. They patent it and they charge for it. If you look a few years down the road this should become conventional technology.

This technology has many characteristics that are quite similar to electronics industry, not agriculture. It moves fast: 24 hours a day, seven days a week and quite different from agriculture which tend to be limited to the seasons. So, the technology is proving to be a challenge to agriculture. Because it is very different. Then it also means that the opportunity cost of getting locked out is much higher.

So, would you advise India to go ahead and adopt it right away?
I would make a general statement. India is a developing country. The greater benefits that this technology offers are in the developing countries of the south. Therefore, if you don't avail yourself of the opportunity to realise these benefits, obviously the opportunity cost is greater.

You say that the companies willingly share the technology with poor countries. But, certainly, they have got to look for tangible benefits. What are these tangible benefits that they look for when they donate the technology?
Corporate philanthropy is no different from philanthropy from foundations. They, as corporate citizens, provide these resources to help people who are poor. Be it Monsanto or Syngenta, they want to be seen as responsible corporate citizens. Remember most of the large foundations get money from private sector. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation that founded the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research, which gave the world semi-dwarf rice and what varieties.

It is one thing to give money and another thing to transfer technology. What is the incentive for the companies to transfer technology, which actually eats into their business?
Not really. Because what you have here. These technologies that transferred by the private sector are destined for poor people who for one reason or the another do not have access to this technology. In many cases, may not have resources as well. The point I have made earlier is very important one. "If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you can feed him for lifetime." That is the importance of building capacity, building know-how along with the transfer of technology. So there are two germplasms involved: crop germplasm and human germplasm. And the human germplasm is a much more important investment. That is what you do in these programmes. That is what the private sector has done for the subsistence farmers. So what do you have is the gene that confers the trait that you are interested in. That is given to the country to include or incorporate in adapted germplasm used.

So, is it a restricted technology transfer? Can the farmer use the same technology for crops that are not covered in the agreement?
In some case, that can be negotiated with the companies. It is done on the case-by-case basis. Usually, there are some restrictions that are quite logical. You can use it for domestic consumption, but not for export.

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