ISIS Report 23/09/05
Outsourcing Ecological and Health Risks & Reducing Scientists
to Bio-coolies for Industry
Dr. Vandana Shiva condemns India’s New Biotechnology
India has emerged as a major global player in the outsourcing of information
technology (IT) related activities from the developed world. Now, its New
Biotechnology Development Strategy (“India’s
biotech future”, accompanying article) is proposing an outsourcing of biotechnology related activities. It states
in no uncertain terms: “Biotech can deliver the next wave of technological
change that can be as radical and even more pervasive than that brought about
There is however a major
difference between IT and biotechnology.
The latter deals with the manipulation
of life forms at the genetic level through genetic engineering (and at the
atomic level when combined with nanotechnology). The engineering
of life is inherently linked to ecological and health risks. Outsourcing
biotechnology is therefore the outsourcing of risk; and this is clearly admitted in the introduction:
“The Indian Biotechnology sector is gaining global visibility and is being
tracked for emerging investment opportunities. Human capital is perceived to
be the key driver for global competitiveness. Added to this is a decreasing
appetite for risk capital in developed countries, which has led to a decline
in the biotechnology sector in these regions where survival lifelines are being
provided by the lower cost research environs of the developing world such as
GMOs: hope vs hype
Biotechnology is defined as
a “technology of hope”, despite the repeated failure of the only commercialized
product of agricultural biotechnology, Bt-cotton:
globally recognized as a rapidly emerging and far-reaching
technology, is aptly described as the “technology of hope” for its promising
of food, health and environmental
is genetically engineered cotton, which contains genes taken from a soil bacterium
(Bacillus thuringiensis) to
produce toxins in the plant to reduce infestation by American bollworm. It
has promoter genes to create high-doses of the toxin, which are released in
all parts of the plant during the entire life span of the crop.
of Bt-cotton in India is a story
of lies, legal violations and connivance between multinational corporations
and governmental authorities. It began in March 1995, with
MAHYCO, a collaborator with Monsanto, importing 100 grams of Bt cottonseed
after obtaining permission from Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation (RCGM)
in the Department of Biotechnology,
and not from the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC). Under the
Environment (Protection) Act 1986, the GEAC is the only body that can
grant permission for importing genetically engineered substances (seeds in
the present case). Therefore the import of Bt gene into India was illegal
(For details of the illegal import, trials and seed multiplication, see the
publication by Vandana Shiva, Seeds of
Suicide, Navdanya, New Delhi, 2000)
In 1998, Monsanto-MAHYCO started large-scale multi-centric,
open field trials in 40 acres at 40 locations spread over nine states; also
without the permission from GEAC even though it is the sole agency to grant
permission for large-scale open field trials of GMOs under the 1989 Rules.
Bt-cotton failure forced the government to not renew permission for planting
the Southern states where it had been planted for the past 5 years. Instead
the government has cleared Bt-cotton
for Northern states.
The Research Foundation
for Science, Technology and Ecology was forced to initiate a case against Monsanto-Mahyco and the government because
the trails and clearances have violated all Biosafety Laws and Rules framed
under the Environmental Protection Act (1986) for the Manufacture, Use, Import,
Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms and Genetically Engineered
Organisms or Cells, 1989.
failure of Bt. Cotton has pushed farmers into debt, and in some cases to suicide. For small farmers, biotechnology is clearly
not a technology of hope.
Besides the social costs,
there are serious ecological risks associated with GM crops.
At a time when the negative experience with genetically
engineered crops should be leading to a strengthening of biosafety regulation, the strategy is
calling for a total deregulation of biotechnology. The deregulation is proposed
through two processes.
First, the current multi-tiered biosafety regulation in which
the Ministry of Environmental has final authority for clearance is to be replaced
by a single window clearance under the Department of Biotechnology.
A new National Biotechnology Authority has
been proposed to cover agricultural products and GMOs, pharmaceuticals and
drugs, transgenic food and feed and transgenic animal/aquaculture. This effectively
marginalises health and environmental risk assessment.
Second, the case-by-case approach in risk assessment is to be replaced effectively
by reinventing the discredited principle of substantial equivalence. The Strategy
is recommended that an event that has already undergone extensive biosafety
tests should not be treated as a new event if
it is in a changed background containing the tested and biosafety evaluated “event”.”
“event” referred to is the genetically modified (GM) insert containing the
transgene that has landed in a particular location of a given plant genome.
The assumption that the transgene will behave in the same manner when introduced
into a different plant genome is scientifically flawed. Natural Bt, a soil
bacterium is not the same as the Bt Cotton, and the Bt protein in one cotton
variety will have different implications for health and environmental
safety than the same Bt in another cotton variety; and all the more so, in
Bt mustard or potato.
This is a strategy to avoid
risk assessment; and
hence a strategy for deregulation of the biotechnology industry in India and outsourcing genetic
pollution and health risks to India’s ecosystem and the Indian
A future of genetically engineered plants, animals and humans
The Strategy proposes to genetic
engineer rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, pigeon pea, chick pea, moong bean, ground
nut, mustard, soy bean, cotton, sugarcane, potato, tomato, cole crop, banana,
papaya, and citrus; in other words, the entire food basket. And the untested
genetically engineered foods are to be promoted for consumption by Indians.
In addition, the Strategy also proposes to genetic engineer animals, especially
buffalo, cattle, sheep and goat.
Genetically engineered fish are also a priority, with a focus on carps, tiger
shrimp and fresh water prawns.
only that. The Strategy also aims to promote human genetic engineering with
“We will be able to repair
some of the damage caused by aging, organ by organ…….. The application of
nanotechnology in bioengineering together with biotechnology offers a great
new range of advanced biomaterials with enhanced functionality; and intertwined
with tissue engineering, it has the potential to provide true organ replacement
technology of the coming decade.”
The nanotechnology applications
to be promoted are carbon nanotubes for biosensors, DNA nanowire, bio-molecular
The new biotechnology strategy
is rushing headlong to include new technology areas for which independent
risk assessment needs to be evolved. As Vicki Colvin, Director of the Centre
for Biological and Environmental Nanotechology, Prince University observes:
“In a field with more than
12 000 citations a year, we were stunned to discover no prior research in
developing nanomaterials risk assessment models and no toxicology studies
devoted to synthetic nanomaterials.” (Quoted in The Big Down: From Genome to Atom, ETC group, Jan 2003)
Under a single window clearance,
no new assessments for nanotech will be evolved. The technology will thus
evolve in a regulatory vacuum. Further, with an “event” treated as equal
in all contexts, carbon nanoparticles will be treated as safe because carbon
in its naturally occurring forms is safe. However, research at Rice University
showed that nanoparticles were accumulating in the livers of lab animals (ETC
Report P 24).
As nanoparticles can be
taken up by cells, they can enter the food chain. And what makes nanoparticles
efficient as drug delivery systems viz., their ability to easily enter the
blood strain and even target individual cells due to their small size can
also become the reason for the risk of a new form of “nanopollution”.
Nanoparticles could reach
organs they were not intended to be in, and have impacts that were never assessed.
The health and environmental risks need to be assessed before the technology
is developed. Instead the new Biotechnology Strategy is planning to introduce
nanotechnology below the regulatory radar.
Privatisation of knowledge
Simultaneously with outsourcing
risk, the Strategy rests on privatizing India’s intellectual
and biodiversity wealth. The 500 000 students trained annually in biological
sciences, 17 000 medical practitioners graduating annually from India’s Medical
Colleges, and 300 000 postgraduates and 1 500 Ph.D.s qualifying in biosciences
and engineering each year are the human raw material for the new vision.
India’s rich biodiversity of agricultural crops and medicinal plants is the
biological raw material.
India’s scientific talent for the Biotechnology industry is the main objective of “human resource development”
in the Strategy. Proposals include
- Visiting professorship and creation of industry-sponsored chairs in partnership
with the Department of Biotechnology
- Industry research laboratories to be introduced at the school level to create
interest in the fields of biotechnology and biology
- Public-private partnerships to be encouraged in Ph.D. programmes through
creation of the “Bio-Edu-Grid” – a network of universities and industries
facilitating pooling of resources
- Scientists working at universities and research institutions to be allowed
to work in industries for commercialization of their research efforts
- Dual/adjunct faculty positions: researchers working in university/research
institutions to be allowed to hold positions in the industry and vice-versa
- Joint salary support: faculty in academic institutions to be paid salaries
- Rapid travel grants to scientists to be approved within two weeks to meet
these partnerships with industry, contract research organisations
(CROs) and Contract Manufacturing Organisations (CMOs) are being set up.
Gene banks and animal testing labs will be set up in partnership with industry.
While the Indian public and parliament are working to change TRIPS and amend
India’s patent laws to exclude patents on life, the Biotechnology Strategy proposes
to lobby WTO and the Government of India to include patents on life and patents
related to biotechnology.
The biotechnology policy is therefore a radical
reorientation of our public education and public research systems to serve
the narrow needs of industry, not the broad and diverse needs of society.
In effect, the strategy envisions reducing
our biological scientists into “bio-coolies” for the global biotech industry.