Indian biotech firms struggle for food breakthrough (19/6/2007)

GM WATCH comment: Note the big lie here:

"BT cotton... helped turn India into a net cotton exporter from a net importer in four years."

Over many years India has experienced significant variations in cotton production - according to climatic variations, among other factors - quite independently of any use of Bt cotton. Interestingly, claims of increased national production were being made for Bt cotton even while its adoption was still minuscule!

There is, of course, no credible evidence to suggest that controlling a single insect, the cotton bollworm, via Bt cotton rather than other means - principally pesticides - could produce this kind of impact on production.

The EPA's former biotech specialist, Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman has commented, "This kind of spin is typical of proponents of GE crops, who don't seem to have enough confidence in their technology to make accurate and realistic arguments."

This spin is being used in India not just to lionise a problematic crop and to try and drown out dissent, but also to try and open the door to GM food production on the basis that it will deliver similar magical benefits.

Among the benefits implied in this article is remediation of farmer suicides. This is worse than ironic given that this is a problem that has actually been exacerbated by the adoption of Bt cotton. The most heart rending example of the farmer suicide problem is to be found in the cotton belt of Maharashtra, where the take up of Bt cotton has been higher than in any other state and where the widows of farmers who've killed themselves are now calling for a blanket ban not just on its sale but on its misleading promotion!


Indian biotech firms struggle for food breakthrough
Agence France-Presse, 17 June 2007

BANGALORE, India, June 17 (AFP): Metahelix Life Sciences, a biotech firm founded by five Indian scientists in 2001, says it is doing research that may lead to the development of insect-protected rice and high-yield corn.

Avesthagen, which like Metahelix is based in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, is working to devise better-yielding oilseeds and improve the tolerance of food crops to drought and salinity.

But a breakthrough is eluding a two-billion-dollar biotechnology industry struggling to replicate the success of BT cotton, which helped turn India into a net cotton exporter from a net importer in four years.

Biotech companies like Metahelix and Avesthagen use micro- organisms such as bacteria or substances like enzymes to make drugs and synthetic hormones, speed up industrial processes and devise better crop varieties.

"BT cotton is the hero of today, there are more waiting in the wings," Metahelix Managing Director K.K. Narayanan, a trained plant breeder, said in an interview in Bangalore, the hub of India's biotechnology industry.

"They are coming," is what Avesthagen CEO Villoo Patell told AFP about the would-be successors to BT cotton on the food production front.

Neither Narayanan nor Patell was willing to hazard a guess as to when the breakthrough will come, even as the biotech industry faces calls to help reverse a decline in food production that forced the country of 1.1 billion people to import wheat last year for the first time in six years.

"No country as large as India can afford to meet its food requirements through imports when we ought to be self- sufficient," Finance Minister P. Chidambaram told Bangalore Bio, the annual biotech industry event, on June 7.

Two-thirds of Indians depend on farming for a living, yet food output is growing slower than the population, said the minister, implicitly criticising biotech firms for not doing enough to boost agriculture.

Manufacturing, including car producers, is expanding 12 per cent and the services sector, such as mobile-phone service providers, 13 per cent, contributing to record economic growth of 9.4 per cent in the year ended March.

But the rate of agricultural growth fell from five per cent in the mid- 1980s to less than two per cent in the past five years.

Annual per capita food grain production declined from 207 kilograms (455 pounds) in 1995 to 186 kilos last year, ominous for a country that wants to double food output in 10 years.

India, the world's second-largest wheat producer, exported none last year and had to resort to imports this year after output fell short of domestic demand.

Despite the Indian economy speeding ahead at a sizzling pace in recent years, thousands of debt-ridden farmers commit suicide every year because of distress caused by crop failures.

That's worrisome for the Congress party-led coalition government headed by economist Manmohan Singh that came to power in 2004 on the promise of boosting the rural economy and the livelihoods of farmers.

Last month Singh said the government would spend six billion dollars to try to help poor farmers by investing in technology and infrastructure to bring crops to market more efficiently.

"Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, said at the time of independence (in 1947) that anything can wait but agriculture can't; that statement is relevant today," said Ganesh Kishore, managing director of Burrill and Company.

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