Counter point: A Scientist's perspective on Seeds, Agriculture and Life

My previous post: Dr. Vandana Shiva on Seeds, Agriculture and Life - Part I  saw varied reactions among my friends. One among them, Raji Swaminathan, who works as a Scientist at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation wrote a detailed letter to me after she expressed her reservations on the article in my face book page. 

I am sharing the email conversation we had to have an open debate to understand the different perspectives about genetic engineering.  Before this conversation happened, I confess, I was quite apprehensive about genetic engineering. This conversation enabled me to look at the other side of this debate without prejudice and look for ways( if there are any) genetic engineering can solve some of the problems we are facing. 
 Raji Swaminathan: There are concerns with the use of genetic engineering, for sure. What is required is to strengthen the regulatory authority and ensure farmers interests are on top, and not get regressive and oppose the use of technology. Risks are everywhere. In our everyday life, from using a cell phone to driving a car to flying in an airline. But we have not stopped using any of these, although there have been airline accidents, car accidents and so on. Also, there needs to be a certain level of maturity and wisdom exercised, not emotions

Venky: I understand. Let me put forth what I understood in my research about genetic engineering. Geneticists cannot insert foreign genes directly. They have to do through viruses, by splicing foreign genes into viruses, and using gene transfer vectors are used to transport the genes to the specific cells. From what I read I gather that the use of vectors to insert genes from donor organisms into the recipient genes is one of the reasons why genetic engineering is hazardous to our society.

Raji Swaminathan: We use vectors to transfer genes of interest into the crops. These vectors are not hazardous. They carry an antibiotic resistance marker which allows to select the right clones and some argue that these markers are bad for health. While we scientists know they aren't, to help public acceptance of the technology, vectors without these antibiotic resistance markers are also used today.
Venky: I see. I would be glad if you could point out your reservations in the article I wrote.

Raji Swaminathan: There are many errors in the article. Two glaring ones are, to say that cotton seed prices have gone up from Rs 5 to 4000. You or Madam Shiva will have to qualify the statement by giving the time frame and the quantity of seed:-) It's like saying that petrol prices have gone up from Rs 10 to 70!! You can quote the price of anything from  a kilogram of rice to the rent of a 2 BHK house:) All prices have gone up. The reality is non Bt Cotton seeds cost Rs 425 (for 450 gms), while the Bt cotton seed costs Rs. 850 (for 450 gms), but there was talk to increase it to 1025(This is the current price, this year)

The second glaring mistake is to mention that genetic engineering is useful to make roundup crops and Bt. It is a technology that can introduce a desired trait into crops with precision. It can be any trait. Companies that have commercialized this technology have done so using Roundup and Bt. Genetic engineering is much more than this. Its just that government funded labs doing genetic engineering have not got around to releasing their products. Thanks to people like Vandana Shiva and many others, they successfully stall and delay the use of technology. In our lab, for example, we have developed drought and saline resistant rice varieties that can grow in environmentally stressed conditions. Due to a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme court, we have not been able to take this technology forward. We are a not-to-profit organization and want to give the farmer these improved varieties free.

Venky: I see your point. It is valid. To be honest with you, there is a natural inclination within me to look at the whole issue of genetic engineering little sceptically as I see the overwhelming truth that it is better to leave it to the course of nature in terms of the food we eat with complex processes that are involved in creating the food that are suitable to us. Humans have been consuming these foods for several years long before science became a predominant force in our lives.

Raji Swaminathan: The rice and wheat we consume and grow, even before the advent of technology are not natural. There was no wheat in nature. It's a cross between 3 plants of the grass family, crossed 1000s of years ago!! So, the choice is simple. We can stop doing agriculture per se and save the environment and biodiversity. Humans can get back to the hunter /gatherer civilization where he climbs trees and eats fruits and nuts and leaves. As long as we want to eat food in the present form, we have to practice agriculture. And yields have plateaued and there is need to improve efficiency. We can choose to die of hunger or we can choose to apply science.

Often, we also say that farmer has to depend on companies for the seeds in the case of genetic engineering crops. The reality is that it holds true of any hybrid seed. Using non hybrid seeds was good when our population was much less, but with today's decreasing area under cultivation (due to industrialization and need for infrastructure such as poer plants, roads, housing, etc) and ever increasing population, we have to look at means to grow more grain in lesser land with lesser resources like water, etc.

Venky: I agree with you that we have to practice agriculture. As far as yields and efficiency is concerned, from what I have learned about Organic farming, I don't think I agree on your points. I shall however explore this in detail and come with my understanding. To reiterate my motivation behind this, I am trying to understand this without any prejudice and look at ways where we can solve the problems we are grappling with.  With more than 240,000 farmers having committed suicide between 1995 and 2009, the gravity of this problem cannot be understated.

If you are a farmer/researcher or a concerned citizen, with a strong view point on this debate, you are most welcome to join us in this discussion.