India Joins the Biotech Club


Churchill’s words remain true in one important sense. The subcontinent is a world unto itself, full of dizzying diversity.

Yet India does appear united in at least one vital way – It’s moving fast toward total acceptance of biotechnology.

“We intend to have a biotech policy as quickly as possible to supply to the farmers pest-resistant and drought-resistant seeds with high nutritional value,” says Kapil Sibal, the minister of science and technology.

As India joins the biotech club, other countries are bound to sit up and pay attention. After all, India is a country on the rise. More than a billion people call it home today–it’s the world’s most populous democracy. Some demographers believe India’s population will outnumber China’s by the end of the century. There’s even talk at the United Nations about India earning a permanent seat on the Security Council.

Two years ago, India permitted the sale of biotech cotton. And as Minister Sibal has indicated, more approvals of different products are in the pipeline right now.

India’s decision to embrace biotechnology is bound to reverberate throughout the developing world, which has so much to gain from adopting modern agricultural practices. Some nations leaders, especially in Africa, have decided to go the way of Europe and reject biotech crops. They’ve done this even though their farmers stand to benefit enormously from biotech-enhanced plants. More surprising still, some countries have remained skeptical of biotech foods that have been donated to alleviate starvation. At times, this crazy policy has been labeled as “better dead than fed.”

The European leaders may continue to live in denial, but now developing countries can look to New Delhi for more sensible leadership. The Indians are wisely casting their lot with progress. Their choice will influence everything from the policies of individual governments to world trade talks.

Maybe the Europeans will learn a lesson from the Indians. That’s what British Prime Minister Tony Blair is trying to do. A couple of years ago, he visited the Indian city of Bangalore and met with a group of academics. “Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you and you will miss out,” they told him. The prime minister summarized their view: “They regarded the debate on [biotechnology] here and elsewhere in Europe as utterly astonishing. They saw us as completely overrun by protestors and pressure groups who used emotion to drive out reason. And they don’t think we had the political will to stand up for proper science.”

The humorist P.J. O’Rourke once wrote of India that “‘sub-’ is no idle prefix in its application to this continent.” He meant these sharp words as a politically incorrect putdown. Today, however, India seems positively forward looking when it comes to biotechnology. That’s why Tony Blair returned to the United Kingdom and warned his countrymen that they ignore biotechnology at their own peril.

No matter what Europe decides to do, the Indians themselves are ready to make significant contributions to the science of biotechnology. The Indian Council on Agriculture Research is studying transgenic rice varieties that would stave off the yellow stem borer. Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru University are breeding protein-rich potatoes–or “protatoes”–that will help combat the problem of malnutrition.

“Zero child mortality in underprivileged children would be the goal,” says Govindarajan Padmanaban, a biochemist at the Indian Institute of Science.

A generation ago, India was a full partner in the Green Revolution. Its innovations in fertilizers and irrigation have made it possible for India to feed its burgeoning population. And now that the Green Revolution is giving way to the Gene Revolution, it’s good to see this up-and-coming country decide that it wants a piece of the new action as well.

John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology.

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Illinois. He served on the Global Farmer Network Board of Directors, and is a former Chair. John currently serves as Chairman and President of the GROWMARK Board of Directors-a farm supply and marketing cooperative that operates principally in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario.

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