June 20, 2004.
BANKING ON BIOTECH
by RACHEL MELCER
divide between nonprofit and for-profit research fuels a debate
in India over the cost of seeds that could transform the nation's
agriculture.In India, where 650 million people eke out a living
on the land, biotechnology could be a tool for survival, leading
scientists and farm advocates say. The nation is squeezed by a growing
population and a diminishing amount of available, arable land. Farmers
are poor and often malnourished. More than half the fields lack
irrigation, so productivity depends on monsoon rains.
biotechnology -- inserting a gene for a desirable trait from
a plant or bacterium into seeds -- could lead to wheat that
grows in a dry season or rice that thrives in salty, coastal
soil. Biotech has produced rice enriched with Vitamin A as
well as corn, cotton, canola and soybeans that have higher
yields, resist pests and make it easier to kill weeds."We
need to feed our people. I don't see any other route but through
biotechnology . . . unless we fell the jungles," said
Satish Deodhar, an economist on the faculty at the Indian
Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Monsanto Co., the
world's leading developer of commercial biotech plants, sells
the only type available in India: insect-resistant cotton.The
nonprofit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, near Monsanto's
headquarters in Creve Coeur, is conducting basic research
on biotech-crop advances that can help humanity. The company
and the research center have said they want their work to
improve conditions in India and other developing nations.
while one is motivated by profit, the other pursues science accessible
to all. Some farmers and observers in India accept both models as
helpful. But others say the divide between for-profit and nonprofit
makes all the difference in the world. "Agriculture is not
a commercial activity here -- it's a livelihood," said Suman
Suhai, founder of the Gene Campaign, which fights for farmer and
tribal rights to indigenous plants and genetic resources. Indian
farmers can't afford to take risks and should not be seen simply
as a market for corporations, she said.
has potential to help poor farmers, but the available genetically
modified crops are of little use to them, said Suhai, a geneticist.
Biotech's value, she said, will come in plants that can survive
harsh conditions or that carry added nutritional or medicinal value.
Such crops are being developed at the M.S. Swaminathan Research
Foundation in Chennai, a nonprofit similar to the Danforth Center.
It is named for and run by the father of India's Green Revolution,
which brought high-yielding hybrid seeds that helped to stop cyclical
famines. "At the moment, this technology is doing nothing for
us. And that is what makes us nervous and concerned," Suhai
Roundup Ready crops, for example, make it easier for farmers to
kill weeds. But weeding is a valuable job for workers who otherwise
would be unemployed. And the weeds might have value as food or traditional
medicine, Suhai said. Yet, the company says Roundup Ready technology
greatly reduces the use of pesticides, which threaten the health
of farmers and the environment. India's waterways are highly polluted,
and the use of chemical sprays and fertilizers is a significant
cause. What's more, Roundup Ready crops are not available in India.
The only commercial biotech seeds the central government has approved
are for Bollgard cotton, which wards off insect infestations. India
is the world's third-largest cotton producer.
Smetacek, director of public affairs for Monsanto India, based in
Mumbai, said Bollgard cotton helps farmers to save money on labor
and pesticides as well as to produce greater quantities of higher-quality
cotton, which fetches a greater price. "Farmers in India live
in desperate circumstances. For them, what really matters is increased
income and making farming more economically viable," Smetacek
said. "They are very quick to embrace new technology. They're
Chengal Reddy, chairman of the Federation of Farmers Associations,
said growers in his grass- roots organization welcome crop biotechnology.
They have seen its rapid adoption in the United States, Brazil and
other countries where agriculture is a profitable enterprise. Now,
they want to reap the same benefits. "Farmers go, by and large,
by common sense and economics," he said. "They've tried
biotech; it worked. Now, they want to go ahead with it." Swaminathan
said the technology is about ensuring "productivity in perpetuity,
but without ecological harm." The key is ensuring that biotechnology
is accessible and helpful to the poor.
Other nations struggle over whether to accept genetically modified
crops, which some people fear can pose a long-term threat to human
health or the environment. But India largely has decided in their
favor.The central government invests hundreds of thousands of dollars
a year in developing its biotech seeds, and it has adopted a science-based
system for approving commercial varieties. India also is too large
to get caught in the middle of a dispute between the United States
and the European Union, which largely has shunned genetically modified
crops, experts said. Several countries in Africa have rejected biotech
seeds and genetically modified food aid because they feared losing
access to European markets for their grain and produce.
But India, with a huge internal market and regional trading partners,
is not so dependent on exports to the EU. India is a bigger player
than Africa in money, population and research. It's a player, not
a foil, said an official at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi.
The bigger issue for India is intellectual property rights -- in
other words, who owns genetically modified seeds and the right to
make money by selling them. The Gene Campaign says Indian seeds
are the result of generations of careful stewardship and breeding
by indigenous farmers, so the local population should not have to
pay to use them. For example, when Monsanto takes a local seed variety
and modifies it with a useful gene, the company should share the
profits with the indigenous community or not charge them for using
the seed, Suhai said. "It is acknowledging the equity and justice,"
said it charges only for the added value of its biotech trait. If
farmers want to use a local variety of a non-genetically modified
seed, then it is available to them, said Brett Bagemann, executive
vice president of international commercial business for Monsanto.
It is a farmer's choice to pay for Bollgard protection, for example.
"I don't believe they should have to pay us for what they already
have. I don't believe we ask them to," he said. "We have
to create enough value (in a genetically modified seed) that it
makes it worthwhile for them to buy it."
Companies innovate to earn a financial return for shareholders.
If the profit motive were removed, they would not conduct research
and the product would not exist. After patent protection expires,
competing companies typically produce cheaper generic versions.
That has happened with Monsanto's flagship herbicide, Roundup, and
eventually it will occur with its genetically modified seeds. Nonprofit
organizations also are developing genetically modified seeds. The
Swaminathan Foundation, for example, could complete work on a trait
for drought resistance before Monsanto and donate it for use in
poor countries. "We can't compete with that," Bagemann
said. "Sure, I want to be there first with drought tolerance
-- of course I do. . . . But it's good for the economy and society
if anyone does it." If farmers are able to earn more money
by planting drought-resistant soybeans, for example, then they will
be better able to afford other Monsanto products, he said.
International agreements recognize companies' right to patent and
profit from life forms, such as seeds. India has had such a law
since 1988, when it allowed the private sector to enter the hybrid-seed
business, which had been a government enterprise.In 2001, India
passed the Plant Variety Protection and Farmers' Rights Act, in
part to satisfy a requirement of the World Trade Organization that
countries engaged in global trade recognize one another's patents
and other forms of intellectual property protection.
But the law tried to please seed companies and farmer advocates
and wound upleaving key questions unanswered, according to a report
by Anitha Ramanna, a fellow at the International Food Policy Research
Institute in Washington. For example, the law allows for multiple
parties to lay claim to the same intellectual property in various
overlapping bureaucracies, the report said. The process, which sets
the stage for costly, time-consuming battles over ownership, could
A panel convened by India's central government and led by Swaminathan
working to resolve these issues. It also will try to streamline
the process of commercializing genetically modified crops, a process
that requires companies to gain approval for each local variety
of seed modified with the same genetic trait. In other countries,
including the United States, the trait is tested and given national
approval for use in any variety of a seed type, such as corn or
soybeans. Bagemann said Monsanto would welcome added efficiency.
The company is pleased that India has adopted a science-based approach
to approving genetically modified crops, based on years of rigorous
testing, to determine if they pose a threat to health or the environment.
In other countries, decisions have centered around politics, trade
concerns or undue precaution.
"Sometimes in international markets, you have to have a little
more patience and a little more perseverance," Bagemann said.
"But I see India being far more independent in biotechnology.
. . . They're not going to let anyone get in the way of their decisions."