Articles

Twenty First Century Mission : Living with Nature in the Modern Form

Twenty First Century Mission : Living with Nature in the Modern Form

Appeared in KISAN WORLD May 2011 Vol 38 No.5

BIOTECHNOLOGY: A FRIEND FOR UNIVERSAL WELL BEING

CONFLUENCE OF SIMPLE AND COMPLEX

Last month (April 2011) we addressed several simple technologies needed for the basics of agriculture. By now our readers are familiar with the fact that most technologies howsoever simple they look as a end product in consumer’s hands, are actually a confluence of several technologies. Some of them may be simple coming to us over centuries and some of them may be very complex and of recent origin.

To make a satellite is very difficult; more so to launch it but the satellite based communications like telephones, mobiles or TV are so simple to operate. Many sophisticated medicines are a result of high science and high technology. But when the users have them, they are easy to consume; even dosages are usually small and nowadays one dose lasts for 24 hours or more.

Some of the drip irrigation systems or water pollution monitoring technologies are high tech in origin. So also some advanced pesticides . Herbal derived supplements be it aloe vera or others used for facial radiation cover or as diet supplements, equally need high technologies in their manufacture. Purifying them form other naturally or process wise coproduced impurity (or toxic) elements require high science and high technology.

No one can dispute the historical fact that it is the application of high yielding varieties of seeds, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides which saved the population all around from terrible famines. If these technologies had not been adopted (as also the pharmaceutical products like antibiotics, immunisation medicines etc used to eradicate diseases or reduce morbidity) human population would have had a “natural” (?!!) control as it was in the past many centuries, still close to 2 billion.

GROWTH OF POPULATION

Not only in India, but all around the developing world, populations have grown many fold. All are getting reasonable access to food (though we need to go a long way to assume food security as we conceive now and were never able to conceive in the past except in fertile imagination of poets and artists!)

The current populations in the developed world have stabilised. They had started the use of these technologies during the 19th and twentieth centuries, and it made them powerful in global trade and military. They had colonised many parts of the world. They had also expanded from the original habitats of Europe to several new continents. They grew more in number and also became prosperous. Then they worked to conceive the prosperity. They have lower population growth now. It helps them to maintain their high standards of living.

The current story of the developing countries is approximately equivalent to what these countries were during the early twentieth century. But they (developing countries) do not have any colonies to exploit. Modern agricultural technologies including medicines have advanced so much that populations in these developing countries keep on growing. Even with a one – child norm China’s population is high.

Of course there is definitely a case for stepped up family planning and population control measures. But that alone will not suffice in the short and medium run. The demands of the increasing populations and more importantly the growing perception of equity will require more and more supply of food, energy, water, medicines, etc to increasingly higher standards of quality and much greater expectations of reliability and safety. Human beings would also demand large number of animals, birds, fishes etc as food as well as pets. Concern for environment will need creating more forests, greenery, and greater attention to pollution control methods.

The technologies developed around the ‘green revolution period’ and improved later many times more, are no longer adequate to meet these demands. We are all aware of the problems of productivity and soil conditions in rice – wheat high out put areas like Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Andhra Pradesh. More and more energy inputs, fertilizer, pesticide usage etc are making their agriculture uneconomical. Also there are real problems of pollution of water, soil, and produce.

Organic alternatives though romantically very attractive are yet poor in terms of productivity and yields. Only in a few select niche markets (supported mostly by the fads and fashions of the affluent) they are profitable.

Indian farming community as a whole cannot be made prosperous with organic alternatives alone. Marginal and small farmers would currently require water, fertilizer, high yielding seeds, other chemical micronutrients, and pesticides to produce to an extent when he can make profit.

But as we have noted, such an extension of earlier technologies alone are not enough to save soils and to have a long term sustainability.

There is a new technology which has emerged world wide and has a potential to solve many of the current problems. That is BIOTECHNOLOGY.

BIOTECHNOLOGY

Basic researches in biotechnology and its small scale applications have emerged about half a century before.  Now there are a few persons who were / are advocating it as a panacea and one – stop solution for most agricultural and environmental problems. On the other hand there is a vocal group which paints it with darkest of brushes. They present it as if man has started interfering with nature for the first time.

Let us again remind ourselves that cross breeding and genetic manipulation of plants, birds and animals have been done by the civilisationally progressing human beings for over a few millennia: The rice or wheat we eat now (even before the high yielding varieties came into large scale operation, are not the same as they existed say 10,000 or 20,000 years ago. Genetic manipulation of plants was a great art and science of plant breeders. There were also many great breeders of special dogs or horses or cows or birds etc. Grafting of tress was a fine art and science.

As the human knowledge expanded, human kind also started knowing more about atoms and therefore of making better materials and chemicals. Similarly in the biological world advances in the scientific and technological knowledge about the cells (basic building blocks of plants, animal etc) and the finer constituents of the cells, led to more efficient manipulation of cells and molecules to produce new varieties efficiently. In turn, they learn more about the impact of changes in genes, the basic units which carry biological information about the various qualitative and quantitative features of the big biological unit – of plant, human body etc. Genes decide weight, resistance to diseases, colour, - almost every parameter of significance to life and performance.

So if we can work at the cellular and genetic levels (that is, take from one living being and place it on the other etc.), we can get the characteristics of the total plant, animal etc altered to meet our performance goals. It is the same thing as the cross breeding but is done at a basic level and more efficiently. Therefore it is more effective and more reliable in output than mere cross breeding. After all, a greater knowledge of scientific aspects leads to better efficiency and reliability in all fields of mechanical, civil, chemical, nuclear etc, engineering. That applies to biological field too.. That is biotechnology: working at cellular and molecular level to cross couple between one organism to another to obtain the desired properties; High level of scientific knowledge is used here.

Is it without any risks?

Everything in nature is full of risks. There are many risks endemic around us and they are not visible to us. Earthquake, cyclones, landslides, forest fires, floods etc or a sudden outbreak of an epidemic or for that an aircraft accident. We know where natural disasters occur frequently. But we cannot for sure say that this particular place on earth is free from all disasters or diseases!!

That apart, in nature things keeps on mutating (changing). Over several thousands of years, totally new forms can appear. The changed forms were not without their its dangers or risks just because nature did it. About 95% of species which evolved naturally, no longer exist now. Nature is ruthless for its own creations!

Unlike the usual natural forms of evolutionary changes or the earlier (pre – biotech) man made breeding changes, biotechnology processes are very fast and can be made in the laboratories and transferred to the nature. No doubt hundreds of tests are done to have a high degree of confidence so that undesirable features have not been inherited through these changes. But there could be some totally unforeseen undesirable after effects which may manifest later, after several decades or centuries, as these new organisms evolve in nature.

But to cite this as the cause for stopping biotechnology derived products for agriculture, environmental protection, removal of many toxic or non toxic industrial, domestic and agricultural wastes, or to have faster growth etc (as biotechnology offers many new avenues) is irrational and denies the opportunities for millions of poor persons to realise some reasonable prosperity.

As per published reports global biotech crop planting has already jumped by 10% during 2010. Now it has reached a milestone of about 1 billion hectares of land. As per the documents of ISAAA (International Service for the Application of Agri – biotech Applications) (taken from an article dated Feb 22, 2011 by Larry Dignan in Smart Planet)

v 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries have planted biotech crops.

v Of these farmers 14.4 million are considered to be small scale

v 1 Billion hectare land mark (cumulative) has been achieved in 15 years of commercialisation.

v The four largest biotech crops are maize, soya been, cotton and canola

v Current global biotech plantings are now 148 million hectares.

v Biotech crops cover 59% of the world population.

US has 66.8 million biotech hectares in production, followed by Brazil at 25.4 million, Argentina 33.9 million, India 9.4 million, Canada 8.8 million and China 3.5 million. US has many crops like maize, soya been, cotton, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya; China has cotton, papaya, poplar, tomato, sweet pepper. India has only cotton. European countries have very limited usage: less than 0.1 million in potato and maize.

Global activism against biotech crops comes mostly from European sources. Cotton farmers in India have gained considerably by the use of biotech crops. Still govt. facilitation can make it better. More importantly if India can adopt biotech maize, papaya and horticultural products, all Indian farmers will gain. Biotech seeds are costlier due to high tech processes. But they can give better performance in yields and / or pest resistance; even dought resistance if specially engineered. Govt can help poor and marginal farmers financially to begin with. Over a period rain dependence can be greatly reduced by the use of right biotech crops.

While safety precautions during tests, trials and initial deployment are essential, raising irrational cries and mass hysteria against biotech crops, will only slow down considerably the march of Indian farmers (and therefore of Indian people) towards prosperity.

Biotech can help the farmers as a useful addition to their tools. It can also help recover many green revolution lands which are now flogged to their limits. If supported well biotechnology can also remove many toxic wastes through special bacteria and help grow forest saplings faster.  Biotechnology can also hep preserve and nurture many genetic resources which have displaced by the commercial considerations of modern agriculture. This technology gives a new window of opportunity for Indians who have missed many before due to irrational paranoia or sheer inertia. Let us not miss it now. Let us adopt it before it is too late. Many countries are moving fast.

Let us therefore be sober and not lag behind many countries and people who have made friends with biotech crops.

 

Y.S.Rajan

28/03/2011