Vol. 5 Num 186 Wed. December 01, 2004  

The biotechnology debate

The debate on merits and demerits of the use of transgenic crops in our country first started in 1998 and in the last five years quite a good number of commentary articles written by scientists, journalists and NGO workers appeared in our national and regional dailies. Very recently Nazrul Islam has expressed his view on the possible disaster that may arise with the introduction of biotechnology in our agriculture ('The Biotechnology Trap,' The Daily Star, 1st Nov. 2004). According to him the experts including technocrats and decision makers of our country are working in favour of some multinational companies (MNCs) and for that only they are arguing for introduction of biotechnology in our agriculture. In this perspective I like to mention here some points. It is true that every technology has merits as well as demerits. But only the judicious application of a technology can bring its benefit for us. Atomic energy in the form of atom bomb is catastrophic but we cannot ignore the benefits human society received with the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Only in agriculture sector a good number of crop varieties have been developed with the use of radiation, which are widely used even in our country. So we cannot put any straight negative comment on the application of biotechnology in our agriculture.

Biotechnology as such is a vast subject and GMO technology (Genetic Engineering) is only a part of it. In his article Islam has focused the only possible adverse effects of the introduction of GM crops in Bangladesh. Our country is densely populated and we must hunt for new technology that can help us in solving our food and nutrition problem. In this process there is no scope of ignoring our farmers' interest. Yes, our farmers are very poor and we must take care of their interest and not the interest of MNCs. And it is the responsibility of our national agricultural institutes such as Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute to see our national interests related to agriculture. I believe our decision making body includes the experts from such institutes.

Islam has pointed out the negative impact of the introduction of green revolution and biotechnology in agriculture. Is it so? Was it possible to feed the increased population if the high yielding varieties of crops particularly of rice and wheat were not developed or introduced and acclimatised. For example, according to one estimate, global rice production must reach 800 million from 585 million in 2003 to meet the demand in 2025. And the agricultural scientists are looking for adoption of both conventional and high technologies to reach this goal. In the mean time the plant breeders and physiologists at IRRI outlined a new plant type (NPT) and advanced significantly. Improving nutritional quality of rice has been identified as one food-based approach to remedy nutritional deficiencies prevailing in large parts of the developing world. In this context, the genetically modified golden rice, engineered to contain the vitamin A precursor B-carotene in the endosperm, has been celebrated as a biotechnological breakthrough. Further it has been identified that exploiting the genetic diversity and the associated nutritional properties of autochthonous land races provides an option for addressing nutrition-related health hazards. So it is important to identify the problem and then to solve it with integrated approach. There are convincing examples that the application of biotechnology in conjunction with conventional techniques have yielded promising results.

It has been pointed out that the introduction of green revolution has come from the idea of commercialisation of agriculture. But so far report goes without green revolution it was not possible to feed the increased population of the world. Even if we look at our neighbouring country, India the picture becomes clear. It is only through green revolution India turned to be a self-sufficient/food surplus country from a deficit one. And the credit goes to the eminent scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, for green revolution in India. It is true that famine or starvation of poor people is not only related to total food production but also to uneven distribution of food. It is a different issue and government policy needs to be reoriented for that. But to feed increased population, our food production must be increased and here lies the development of efficient technology.

Islam has expressed his dread that with the introduction of biotechnology in our agriculture there will be further genetic erosion in our traditional crops as the farmers will concentrate more on monoculture. Biotechnological devices, on the contrary, offers opportunity of widening genetic diversity as mutation breeding does. Here the decision makers need to direct the authorities concerned to frame laws and programmes for conservation of the land races and widening genetic diversity. It is pertinent to mention here that recently made global treaty on sharing plant genes as ratified by 55 countries, has come into force. This can be considered a milestone in the context of upholding farmers' right and conservation of land races.

It has been presumed that if GM crops are introduced our farmers will have to purchase its seeds at every sowing time. It has also been mentioned that such crop seeds are unable to produce their true types and therefore it is non-renewable. This is not true as in case of our major crops such as rice, wheat, pulses (self pollinated crops) once a variety is developed either through hybridisation or transgenesis, that can be maintained by the farmers. Only in case of hybrid variety (still such variety has not been released in Bangladesh in case of self pollinated crops such as rice or pulses) seeds need to be provided at every sowing time. Even in case of self pollinated crops such as brinjal and tomato it is very easy to supply hybrid seeds to the farmers as a single pollination can yield hundreds of seeds.

In Bangladesh at this stage the question of using of pesticide and herbicide resistant variety is not very important. We must concentrate on the development and release of improved varieties only in terms of yield, quality and disease resistant. With regard to the trial of Bt cotton in India it may be pointed out that the experiments are still in progress and the results received so far are different depending upon environment. In such experiments genotype-environment interaction cannot be ignored. And I know many scientists in India are now engaged in development of insect resistant cotton varieties by modification of genetic system through transgenesis.

Islam has rightly mentioned the allergic and toxic effect of some GM foods. Any GM crop before release in a country needs to be screened both at field and laboratory for testing its suitability in terms of its performance and quality. Even in case of many naturally existing field crops such as grass pea (Khesari) toxic substance has been reported and it is only through genetic manipulation necessary correction has been done. It is therefore important to concentrate on the proper and judicious application of biotechnology in our agriculture. Without depending only on foreign countries if we evolve new varieties ourselves as per our need then there will be no question. And in this connection we need to initiate collaborative research programmes with International Agricultural Research Institutes such as IRRI, ICRISAT, ICARDA rather than allowing MNCs to sell their seeds. A positive sign is that a number of young and energetic scientists having good research experience in the field of Genetic Engineering are now engaged in research in different Institutes and Universities of Bangladesh. I believe they are very careful and capable to meet our national need with judicious application of biotechnology in our agriculture. Our scientists and decision makers will do their duties in the interest of our country and not in favour of MNCs. They will plan our national programmes in such a way that our farmers' rights are uphold and our environment is not polluted with any undesirable genetic contamination. We must admit that we cannot sit idle without justifying the application of this technology in agriculture, which has already been accepted in the field of medicine and industry even in our country.

Dr S K Bhadra is Professor, Department of Botany, University of Chittagong.