St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 2004.


The 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.

Crop 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.

But 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.

Biotechnology 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 said.

Monsanto's 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.

Ranjane 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 extremely forward-thinking."

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," she said.

Monsanto 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 stifle innovation.

A panel convened by India's central government and led by Swaminathan is
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."