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Biodiversity & ethics

BIOTECHNOLOGY, BIOSAFETY AND BIODIVERSITY: SCIENTIFIC AND ETHICAL ISSUES FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT·editors Sivramiah Shantharam and Jane F Montgomery·Science Publishers Inc, New Hampshire, 1999·237pp· price not mentioned

Published: Tuesday 15 February 2000

-- THIS book records the proceedings of the satellite symposium on 'Biotechnology and biodiversity: scientific and ethical issues', held in November 1996 at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, as part of the Second International Crop Science Congress.

Though the proceedings were published three years after the conference, the issues that were addressed are still relevant today. A lot of water has flown under the bridge, a lot of heat generated, but the ethical and biosafety issues remain unaddressed. Meanwhile, new issues continue to be added. This is cause for concern, given the fact that biotechnology has the potential of addressing a number of problems, especially those related to agriculture and healthcare. The virtually unlimited potential of biotechnology has innumerable implications, ranging from patenting of life forms and privatisation of biotechnology research and benefits, to eugenics -- in search of perfection -- and the 'right to know' about genetic predisposition to disease. The latter could affect employment and marriage opportunities.

The papers in the proceedings revolve around biosafety issues concerning agricultural biotechnology, the impact of biotechnology on biodiversity and local communities in biodiversity-rich countries, and intellectual property rights. All these are issues that are interlinked. Intellectual property rights is a particularly tricky issue. The 'big spenders' on research feel their investments need to be protected and so there are a number of international legislations in place to protect the rights of commercial companies and breeders. Left out in the cold are local communities and farmers who have nutured and conserved biodiversity, and on the foundation of which many biotechnological innovations are based.

The significance of extending intellectual property protection (ipp) to agriculture in developing countries is discussed by Bishwajit Dhar and C Niranjan Rao in their paper Plant Breeders and farmers in the new intellectual property regime: conflict of interests? This protection would mean drastic changes in the small-farmer dominated agricultural systems in these countries, since these countries would then have to adopt a framework of ipp protection with a strong bias towards modern breeders and anti-traditional farmers.

Biosafety issues are a major concern, both at the political and scientific levels. At the scientific level there are concerns -- validated by research -- indicating that genetically modified organisms (gmos) may or may not be as benign as they are made out to be. At the political level, there are pressures that these be accepted by all.

The Ethical Dilemmas in the Conservation of Biodiversity by Anil Gupta makes interesting reading. The challenge, he feels, lies in conserving biodiversity without keeping the people poor -- not an easy task given the fact that biodiversity and poverty are generally two sides of the same coin. This naturally follows that the loss of biodiversity is associated with economic wealth and, therefore, it is unfair to expect the poor to conserve, and thus continue to remain poor 'in the interest of the larger common good'. Gupta does offer a way out of this conundrum.

In fact, that is the impression one gets after reading the book. The issue is topical, the subject interesting -- unfortunately, the book is not. Perhaps not even to persons involved in biotechnology, biodiversity and associated ethical issues.

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