Agriculture and Food security


I deem it a rare privilege to be associated with the inauguration of India's most advanced and perhaps the world's largest gene bank at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.  This Indo-USAID Plant Genetic Resource Project is, indeed, a fine example of international co-operation in the field of agricultural science and technology between the Republic of India and the United States of America.

It has been said that "genetics is destiny" and that the 21st century would be the age of informatics and bio-technology.  The Indian sub-continent is one of the major centres of genetic diversity for plant species.  This biological wealth remains largely unexplored and untapped.  No doubt India's Green Revolution was fuelled by the development of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat with the aid of bio-technology, and the breakthrough in sugarcane and millets would not have been possible without a rich genetic resource base.  But these successes constitute only the beginnings of what could be achieved through the application of bio-technological methods and rational methods of conservation of our genetic diversity.

What is surprising is our indifference to the unlimited potential of germplasm and the need for its conservation before it is lost.  It is a poignant reality that the bio-diversity of the developed countries is somewhat limited. The developing countries are a rich source of genetic material for the world to-day.  With pressure on these resources increasing many varieties of germplasm will be vulnerable to extinction.  Harvard biologist Edward Wilson estimates that nearly 140 species of plants and animals become extinct every day.  The activities of man associated with modern technology have put to danger many species of plants.  We in India have lost many varieties of indigenous rice due to application of high yielding varieties during the Green Revolution.

I am glad that the world community of scientists and policy makers have now given top priority in their research and policy agenda to conservation of plant genetic resources.  Gene Banks are a testimony to this new priority.  We appreciate the generous support of the Government of the United States in establishing this Gene Bank in India.  It is particularly important that gene bank facility of this magnitude is located for the first time in a gene-rich developing country.  The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources since its inception in 1976, has performed a signal service in collecting and conserving our plant genetic resources.  However, we need to do more.  In addition to banking genetic material, there should be documentation of the location and status of biological resources and the local / community knowledge that exists about the various uses of these resources.  This should be compiled as a National Bioresource Register. 

The Indo - U.S. project is conceived with the objective of strengthening and augmenting India's Plant Genetic Resources programme.  It is a large laboratory complex fully equipped with sophisticated scientific instruments and modern glass houses, besides the gene bank.  With training and consultancy facilities built into the system this project would be able to cater to the needs of the entire region.

However it has to be remembered that gene banks provide only a techno-centric solution to the problems of gene erosion.  In addition we need an eco-friendly on the site method also.  Our farmers, women and tribals have evolved customs and traditions over the ages which have protected and conserved our genetic resources.  It is from germplasms nurtured by the farmers of the developing world that the developed countries have benefitted the maximum.  Therefore care must be taken that indigenous communities should not be denied their fair share of the profits accrued from the commercial exploitation of the genetic resources they have conserved.

The Biodiversity Convention of 1992 affords opportunities for the developing countries to protect their genetic resources.  It is a matter of concern that we in India have still not formulated legislations arising out the Convention and have not even established ownership over our own resources.  Illegal bio-prospecting is causing loss of revenue to this country as well as considerable environmental damage.  It is time we had put in place a legal framework to counter this loss and damage to our environment.  Countries like Australia and the Philippines reacted promptly to the Biodiversity Convention and laid down conditions for the use of their bio resources.  Both have declared ownership over their resources and a formula for sharing of the products and technologies derived from them.

Under the GATT/TRIPS, India needs to introduce an effective sui generis system for plant varieties.  The Rio Convention of 1992 on Biological Diversity unequivocally recognized the sovereign rights of countries over their natural resources.  FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources has stressed the need to link access to plant genetic resources with sharing benefits arising out of the use of these genetic resources.  India for its part, I am told, is getting ready with its own model of sui generis system of Plant Variety Protection which safeguards the rights of both the cultivator and the conserver farmer, besides protecting the researchers' privilege.  Speedy action is called for in regard to this.  The use of biological resources should be just, equitable and sustainable.

We are for unrestricted exchange of germplasm among countries.  But we are against monopolisation by `the haves' of the genetic wealth of `the have nots' without sharing the benefits accrued therefrom.  We will be happy to share our genetic resources with anyone provided it is used for general welfare and not for "owning" through intellectual property rights.  I am of the view that patenting genes and genetic material is neither feasible nor desirable.  Several studies point out that this kind of intellectual property right control is not in the interest of any one other than the patent holder.

This is the era of biotechnology, the technology which will dominate upto 60 to 70 % of the global economy for the next twenty to thirty years and for which genes are the raw material.  Developing countries have a tremendous opportunity to use their genetic wealth to upgrade their agriculture and exploit this powerful new technology for self reliant economic growth.  Germplasm owning countries like India and others in the developing world must not lose control over their bio-wealth by allowing patents in this area.  For these nations, genetic resources are not only the raw material of potential biotechnological applications, they are first and foremost, the socio-economic foundation of rural and tribal economies.  They offer the opportunity for development from the grassroots upwards in a way that no other technology has done so far.

This modern facility that we are putting up will have to work for the common good.  We should ensure that the wealth that is collected in this and other gene banks remains the property of those whose fields it was collected from.  Let it be there for use by all, without barriers and restrictions, for ensuring the food and nutritional security of the poor and hungry of this earth, and not hijacked for the profit and the benefit of the few.

The common man, particularly in the developing countries, is oblivious of the importance of preserving the less productive land races and wild species of no direct utility to him.  Nor is he aware of the need for providing legal protection to them or of their importance to the environment in which he lives.  Therefore it is necessary to launch a public awareness programme pointing out the importance of hidden genes in the genetic resources for sustaining food resources and providing security of livelihood to the human race that is growing at a rapid rate especially in the undeveloped third world.

I have now great pleasure to inaugurate this National Gene Bank established in co-operation with USAID.   I do hope that this important joint venture would spark off a new genetic revolution in India's agriculture and food production, and register a major success in the struggle against hunger and malnutrition.

Jai Hind