Ethical and Biosafety Issues for the use of Modern Biotechnology!
The bioethics committee of UNESCO established in 1993 has evolved guidelines for ethical issues associated with the use of modern biotechnology. Biosafety guidelines for genetically improved organisms (GIOs) need to be strictly followed to prevent harm to human health or the environment.
A three-tier mechanism of Institutional Biosafety Committees has been instituted in India: the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, and the state level coordination committee.
It is important to give a clear explanation of the new biotechnologies to the public to allay their fears. New models of cooperation and partnership have to be established to ensure close linkages among research scientists, extension workers, industry, the farming community, and consumers.
Gene transformation is done worldwide with four broad objectives:
(a) To develop products with new characteristics
(b) to develop pest and disease resistance
(c) to improve nutritional value
(d) to modify fruit ripening to obtain longer shelf life.
Thus the aims and objectives are laudable and the tools are available.
The new technology does, however, call for a cautious approach following appropriate biosafety guidelines. About 25,000 field trials of genetically modified crops have been conducted worldwide. The anticipated benefits are better planting material, savings on inputs, and genes of different varieties can be introduced in the gene pool of crop species for their improvement.
The potential risks include weediness, transgene flow to non-target plants, and the possibility of new viruses developing with wider host range and their effects on unprotected species. For crops such as com and cotton with single gene introductions, there is very little problem expected. When multiple genes are involved scientists have to be more cautious.
The time has arrived for a serious look at ethical and biosafety aspects of biotechnology.
Researchers, policymakers, NGOs, progressive farmers, industrialists, government representatives, and all concerned players need to come together and share a platform to address the following issues:
1. Environmental safety
2. Food and nutrition security
3. Social and economic benefits
4. Ethical and moral issues
5. Regulatory issues.
There are about 50 approved MS, postdoctoral, and MD training programmes in biotechnology in progress or just about to start, in different institutions and universities covering most Indian States. Short-term training programmes, technician training courses, fellowships for students to go abroad, training courses in Indian institutions, popular lecture series, awards, and incentives form an integral part of the human resource development activities in India.
A special feature of the programme has been that since 1996 many students after completion of their training course join industries or work in biotechnology-based programmes in institutions and laboratories. National Bioscience Career Development Awards have been instituted. Special awards for women scientists and scholarships to the best students in biology help promote biotechnology in India and give recognition and reward to the scientists.
Biotechnology-based activities to benefit the poor and weaker sections and programmes for women have been launched. A unique feature is the establishment of a Biotechnology Golden Jubilee Park for Women which will encourage a number of women entrepreneurs to take up biotechnology enterprises that benefit women in particular. This will also encourage women biotechnologists to develop relevant technologies.
States are taking a keen interest in developing biotechnology-based activities. The States of Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Mizoram, Punjab, Gujarat, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Bihar have already started large- scale demonstration activities and training programmes.
The Indian Government has made substantial investments in biotechnology research. Bringing Indian biotechnology products to market will require the involvement of large and small entrepreneurs and business houses. This will require substantial investments from Indian and overseas investors. The worldwide trend is that large companies are becoming major players in development of biotechnology products, and also in supporting product-related biotechnology research.
In the years ahead, biotechnology R&D should produce a large number of new genetically improved plant varieties in India, including cotton, rice, brassicas, pigeonpea, mung bean, and wheat. Tissue culture regeneration protocols for important species such as mango, saffron, citrus, and neem will lead to major commercial activities. Micro-propagation technology will provide high-quality planting materials to farmers.
Environment-friendly bio-control agents and biofertiliser packages will hopefully be made available to farmers in such a way that they can produce these in their own fields. The country should be in a position to fully utilise, on a sustainable basis, medicinal and aromatic plants.
The development through molecular biology of new diagnostic kits and vaccines for major diseases would make the health care system more efficient and cheaper. Genetic counselling clinics, molecular probes, and fingerprinting techniques should all be used to solve the genetic disorders in the population.
The establishment of ex situ gene banks to conserve valuable germplasm and diversity, and a large number of repositories, referral centers for animals, plants, and microorganisms should be possible. Detailed genetic readouts of individuals could be available.
Information technology and biotechnology together should become a major economic force. It is expected that plants as bioreactors would be able to produce large numbers of proteins of therapeutic value, and many other important items. The recent discovery of the gene for recalcitrant species was a landmark event.
In vitro mass propagation can be carried out on any desired species with nonrandom programming. Certainly the 21st century could witness a major increase in new bio-products generated through modem biology. To achieve the goal of self-reliance in this field, India will require a strong educational and scientific base, clear public understanding of the value of new biotechnologies, and involvement of society in many of these biological ventures.
India has a large research and educational infrastructure comprising 29 agriculture universities, 204 central and state universities, and more than 500 national laboratories and research institutions. It should therefore be possible to develop capabilities and programmes so that these institutions act as regional hubs for the farming community, community, where they can get direct feedback about new technological interventions. It will be equally important to establish strong partnerships and linkages with industry, from the time a research lead has emerged until the packaging of the technology and commercialisation are achieved.
The future impact of biotechnology on industrial development, but this does not yet apply to the less developed countries that lack this infrastructure and industrial strength. In view of the current power of biotechnology and its even brighter future, there is no question that the less developed countries must now position and strengthen their status in biotechnology.