“It takes up to $100 million to develop a gene"

Full text of an e-mail interview with Dr KK Narayanan, MD, Metahelix Life Sciences (P) Ltd, a Bangalore-based agri-biotech company, and member of the executive council of Association of Biotechnology led Enterprises. He has led the 'Crop Transformation and Functional Genomics' programme at the Monsanto Research Centre, Bangalore. Narayanan has a PhD from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and a post-doctoral Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. He is member of several committees and central government's advisory bodies including the task force on Agricultural Biotechnology and the Working Group on Bio-safety Regulations.

Q: Is it true that most foods processed in the US have genetically modified corn or soya and that most people don't know anything about what they are eating? Is this aspect of health assessment important? Do you think the government should get more active with that since number of food inspections seem to be reducing drastically with time?

A: Firstly, it is incorrect to say that most people do not know what they are eating. The fact that biotech crops are being cultivated successfully and safely for 13 years now in 25 countries is a testament that people are seeing value in these technologies. Globally the biotech crops grown include soybean, maize, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa, sugarbeet, tomato, and sweet pepper, among others. Today, 57 countries including Japan, USA, Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Australia, the Philippines, the European Union, New Zealand and China have granted regulatory approvals for biotech crops for import for food and feed use and for release into the environment since 1996. Every time that a technology is introduced in a country, it undergoes stringent tests by an independent regulatory body. A wide panel of food, plant and scientific experts ensure safe introduction of plant biotechnology for the benefit of the nation.
 
In India, MOEF's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has put in place a stringent science-based regulatory regime comprising three ministries - ministry of science and technology, environment & forests, and agriculture. The entire regulatory process takes four-seven years and no biotech crops are allowed in the market until they undergo extensive and rigid crop safety assessments, following strict scientific protocols. In fact, as a nation we tested the only approved biotech crop in India - Bt cotton, for seven years prior to its approval in 2002 (the longest globally).

The GEAC is constantly striving to improve the delivery system while ensuring the health of the environment, human beings and animals, in order to consider the grant of commercial approval of biotech food crops; second generation biotech traits in improved cotton hybrids, including efficient weed management technologies; and development of drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant crops; as well as encourage the research and cultivation of other beneficial technologies. The agri-biotech industry will continue to conduct research in key crops, in compliance with India's globally harmonised regulatory protocols.
 
Q: Have you taken any steps towards public education which is more than just applying small labels on food items? Is there any other way you achieve that end? Better stated, do you think public knowledge about what they're consuming necessary at all, that it is a part of consumer rights?                            
 
A: Yes, it is critical that the public is made aware of the facts, science and safety of biotech crops by scientific experts. They need to know that it takes up to US$ 100 million to discover and develop a gene, and five - eight years for testing until it gets launched in the market. Every biotech crop technology undergoes rigorous testing by scientific experts and the nation's independent regulatory bodies.
 
While some people believe it's a right-to-know issue and all products containing ingredients from biotech-enhanced crops should be labeled; others believe that since there's no difference between biotech-enhanced and non- biotech-enhanced ingredients, labeling shouldn't be required. Since commodity biotech products are equivalent to their conventional counterparts, regulatory authorities around the world have found that foods from biotech crops are as safe as those from conventional crops, and hence do not require to be labeled. It is important that people are informed and aware of the benefits of biotech and how they have been grown and consumed safely in 25 countries since 13 years.
 
We support the need for labeling if there is a scientific reason for it - for example if the nutritional composition of the biotech-enhanced product is substantially different from a non- biotech-enhanced product.  The cost of specialty product marketing and labeling however, should be borne by those who prefer to make the distinction and extract value from the specialty market. We comply with the law wherever we do business and work to cooperate with the industry and consumers to share meaningful information.
 
Q: Do you have data to prove that yield of GM crops is more than ordinary crops?

A: Biotech crops are being successfully and safely cultivated globally for the past 14 years. Farmers are intelligent businessmen and choose the seeds that provide them with the highest yield, income and ease of cultivation. As a result, many choose biotech-enhanced seeds (from competitors in the private or public sectors) for higher yields and lower input costs. Some farmers choose to plant conventional (non-biotech) seed, and the companies offer those varieties, too.
 
India's success with Bt cotton is widely acknowledged in India and across the world. Indian farmers are astute determinants of value. Farmers determine value based on quality of yield, fair price, and convenience. Give a farmer higher good quality cotton yields, better returns (fair market price), and more convenience when farming - and he is likely to adopt a new product.
 
Five million Indian cotton farmers cultivated Bt cotton on over 90 per cent of India's total 225 lakh cotton acres in 2009. Within six years of introduction of Bt cotton, farmers have made India the world's second largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton (after China). According to industry experts, Bt cotton has not just changed farmer lives, but revolutionised cotton production in the country, which has more than doubled to 315 lakh bales in 2008-09 from 136 lakh bales in 2002-03. The total additional value created annually by better Bt cotton seeds is Rs 40,000+ crore per annum for all stakeholders (farmers, ginners, exporters, textile mills, seed industry, and government) of which farmers earn Rs 20,000 crore additional income from higher Bt cotton yields and insecticide savings annually - a direct contribution to our country's GDP. As a result, India's share in the world cotton production is up by 65 per cent (20.6 per cent in 2007-08 from 12.5 per cent in 2001-02).
 
India's Bt cotton farmers get yields which are up 50 per cent- 100 per cent; earn an average 64 per cent higher income (Rs 8,669) per acre than conventional seed farmers; plus, 87 per cent of Bt cotton farmers enjoyed better lifestyles, 84 per cent increased peace of mind, 72 per cent invested in their children's education, and a significant 67 per cent repaid their long-pending debts (IMRB Survey, 2007). Further, the frequent health concerns such as giddiness, nausea, itching etc. experienced by farmers/farm workers due to higher number of pesticides applications in non-Bt cotton fields, were found to have reduced considerably when cultivating Bt cotton (UAS, Dharwad). 
 
As farmers upgrade to newer technologies, it is evident that they are experiencing immense value from insect-protected Bt cotton which provides better insect protection, higher yields, ease of farming convenience, in addition to better insect resistance management.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2010