Thursday, April 4, 2013


Talk delivered at the INDIA TODAY CONCLAVE , March 13, 2010, New Delhi

Suman Sahai

It's a pleasure to be here especially since it is not very often that you get an opportunity to discuss science and technology at a gathering like this. I particularly appreciate that INDlA TODAY has put together this agenda. Michael Specter of the New Yorker has just laid before you very comprehensively, and in great detail all the classical arguments that are put out in defence of genetic engineering and genetically-engineered crops. There are some things that I agree with and there are many I don't. As a practicing laboratory scientist trained in genetics  myself, there are a  few things I would like to clarify.
The oft-repeated phrase that genetic engineering is very precise is not true. Genetic engineering as we use it today is actually a very imprecise technology. We can neither guide the gene to where we want it go nor can we get the number of copies of genes that we want. If I want to put in two genes I can't. I shoot in genes into a cell and I wait for something to happen. So there is great randomness to this technology.
This is all right provided you take on that randomness on board and then work with the fact that it is not a precise technology. Therefore, you have to work with the fact that you will have to deal with safety testing. On the question that there are the starving millions, hungry hordes, the growing population and that genetic engineering is necessary to address this problem, there is no evidence so far. 

Whether genetic engineering will also play a role in solving the problem of hunger will be seen in the future. Today, the technology is very restricted, its application is wide but its offer is very restricted. Unfortunately though, the mythology of genetic engineering is replete with claims that are not substantiated by fact and reality. If we talk about hunger, we need to look at the number of things that are happening to cause it and all the solutions that may be available. 

“Genetic engineering is a regulated technology and it has to be regulated cautiously.-
Hunger happens when a person does not have access to productive assets like land or water to grow food or does not have a job and enough money in his pocket to buy food. Today, in this country and in many other countries in Asia, we have many potential solutions for hunger. There is a tremendous amount of genetic potential locked up in the crop varieties  that we are unable to translate into big harvests,  because farmers can't afford enough fertilisers, soil health is poor and potential yield is not translated into real yield. 
Again on the question of hunger, look at India and see how much of India is irrigated. Sixty to seventy   per cent of Indian arable land (where crops can grow) is not irrigated but dependent only on the monsoon. So, before you get into a technology fix, all that you need to do to double and triple food production, in the country is bring water to these un irrigated areas. When you bring water to the areas which are growing only one crop a year today, you can grow two or three crops in a year. You will not just double food production, you will probably triple it.
Technology can play a role in improving the situation but to give credence to a technology beyond what the technology has so far shown is perhaps misguided.
On Mr. Specter’s contention that to ban Bt brinjal was a misguided decision, I differ. I think the government should have banned Bt brinjal, because of all the things that had gone wrong with developing and regulating it. Violations cannot be condoned.
Genetic engineering  is a regulated technology and it has to be regulated cautiously. It is scientists who have acknowledged that there are safety concerns. Regulation was asked for not by political leaders, not by civil society, not by NGOS, but by scientists. We must take the matter of safety of these products very seriously. Bt brinjal went through a series of processes. There were grave and outstanding questions about the way it had been regulated. This country has a policy on mandatory labelling of GM foods. This is the policy we represent in all of the meetings at Codex Alimentarius.
The Regulators wanted to give permission for the release of Bt brinjal, but the country has not yet got the labelling, infrastructure or mechanism in place. We are in violation of our own rules. We don't have a law on Liability and Redress nor is there a law nor mechanism to grant compensation if something goes wrong. Many questions have been raised about the nature of the safety tests and the careless and inadequate manner in which they were done.
This is not to attack the technology, it is to attack the atrocious regulatory systems that governs it. To say that the decision on Bt brinjal can't be defended is incorrect. It's a decision that should have been taken at least on account  of the failure of regulation and the paucity of evidence on safely of the product. People ask how much testing is needed. Testing has to be done till it is clear that the product is safe or otherwise.
The golden rice issue was raised but I want to put before you the fact that India and countries like India have a huge genetic variability in the crops that they grow. There are rice varieties rich in iron , zinc, vitamins and so on.
Golden Rice may or may not pan out finally but we don’t need it.  We have golden millets, golden sweet potatoes, and other Vitamin A rich foods. If you really want a Vitamin A fix, you don't have to genetically engineer rice, you have many kinds of rice that are nutritious and also other kinds of staple foods that will deliver vitamin A ( and many other nutrients ) and deliver it in much more cost effective ways. I am not shutting the doors on technology but to say that GM technology is central or even exclusive to solving our problems of hunger and malnutrition, is frankly ridiculous.  -
“Just as science can do a lot of good, its application can also do a lot of bad. “-
GM technology may play a role one day but today there are just two genes on offer: the Bt gene and the HT (herbicide tolerance) gene. Neither of them has any connection to hunger, nutrition or improving livelihoods.
You must think after all this that despite being a geneticist, I am firmly anti-science or anti-technology. I am not and I can't be. I have been trained in science and it has been the best part of my life, but I have to put before you the fact that neither science nor technology operates in a vacuum. Just as science can do a lot of good, its application can also do a lot of bad.
You have heard about Einstein's theory of relativity, but how many people know that the GPS in your car and in your phone is actually derived from the Theory of Relativity. That's how easily you can adopt sophisticated science for human applications and derive benefit from it. That's the same GPS that's used in drone airplanes that bomb the hell out of places. When Enrico Fermi did  his experiments on nuclear fission on the sports field in Chicago and started understanding the nature of fission, it led to the nuclear reactor, to the Manhattan Project, to the bomb and then to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is a purity about science that I am for but there may not be a purity in the application of science, when science turns into technology. When you look at genetic engineering, it comes from very straight forward work by an Austrian priest called Gregor Mendel. In 1860, when we were roughly wrapping up our first War of Independence against British rule, an Austrian priest was working on the principles of heredity and this Austrian priest laid the foundation of genetics, of understanding heredity which has been of crucial importance in understanding human disease.
We have understood how to make family pedigrees to see the transmission of disease. We have understood how to tackle disease but we have also understood genes and heredity and have developed amniocentesis, sex determination and the killing of girl foetuses. Atrocious gender ratios, like 750 females per 1,000 males, exist in many parts of our country and outside. -
“We can create new life forms in the laboratories using synthetic biology. “-
Therefore, science and technology do not operate in a vacuum. The onus  is on us to take science and technology and to make them work for the betterment of humankind. You think we have a seen a lot of genetic engineering? How many of you are aware of the new science, synthetic biology, which is just five or six years old? What happens with synthetic biology? You can actually construct new life forms with synthetic biology. You can take the DNA which is essentially a chemical. You can buy it off the shelf and paste it together in the lab and create a new life form. In fact, Craig Venter, who is a brilliant scientist, has created an artificial bug called Mycoplasma laboratorium and what Venter's group did was to strip a bacterium called Mycoplasma genetelium and pack it with completely new DNA and he created an artificial organism called Mycoplasma laboratorium. Before that the Centre for Disease Control in the US had reconstructed the virus that causes Spanish flu which incidentally killed 100 million people in 1918 after the World War-I. This is the brave new world of science.
“The precautionary principle is an important cornerstone of all negotiations in the world of science.”-
As a practicing laboratory scientist, let me tell you, accidents will happen. Test tubes will break, petri-dishes will break, solutions will spill and, however, technically well organised your laboratory is for safety, accidents will happen. Murphy’s Law operates and therefore it is important to realise that not all risks can be contained. So what does this mean?
When you have an artificial organism like the one created out of synthetic biology what can you get? Think of bio-warfare. If you have an anthrax attack what will happen? It will kill some people and then you will quickly deploy an antidote. But you don't know what Mycoplasma laboratorium can do because it has no pedigree. It comes from nowhere. This is novel genetic material that you have put together, but you don't know how it will interact with the environment. You don't know what damage it can do to human health. You have no idea how to control it or destroy if it turns out to be dangerous.If you have bio-warfare with anthrax, you know what to do with it. But should you have a bio-warfare with an organism like that, you are completely at sea as to how to control this organism.
And - as against physics and chemistry, the brave new world of biology replicates. Bugs have babies, humans have babies, genes have babies, they all replicate.
If you put a transformer out here or a glass out there, it will sit there for the next 3,000 years and it will not have babies. But if you put out a dish with a cell culture, the cells will proliferate, spill out and go places. Therefore, when you are tinkering with biology, then you must step back a bit. It is famously said that the 21st century will be the century of biology. It will be. All the breakthroughs are going to happen in this field. This field is already giving us transformative technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology,  synthetic biology etc. Transformative because they are going to transform the way we live, the way we eat our food, the way drugs are delivered to us and also the way environment will be. So what do we do when we confront this situation? Do we step back and say no science, no technology? No, of course not. Rather we ask ourselves which science, which technology? 
After destroying the planet to the extent that we have, I think we should have learnt some lessons. And we need to make a distinction between science and its application in the form of technology. The crucial and deciding factor is human greed. Today, as we look and see the potential of science and what it has to offer, let us step back with a little modesty. Let us agree that it is sufficient to optimize profits not necessarily to maximise them. Nature has a very tolerant and benign presence, you lean on her, you hurt her a bit, she takes it. You cut down some trees, the forest will come back. But if you push her, if you knock off entire forests, if you release fiddled bugs, if you destroy the climate, if you ravage bio-diversity, then nature will hit back. We need to remember this. Nature will give you  leeway but will hit back if you go too far.
“Nature has a very tolerant presence. It gives you much leeway, but it will hit back if you hurt it.”
So what are the lessons for the application of science? We should certainly forge ahead it but with three words I will leave you with - Ethics, Regulation and Precaution. There is a whole field of bio-ethics that is developing, not as fast as it should but it is there. And it is scientists who have laid some restraints on themselves. When genetic engineering started, scientists converged at Asilomar for a conference in 1975. They got together and said this technology can go places,  also where we don't want it to go, so we must exercise control and have regulation. We have self-imposed bans on human cloning, on human germ-line therapy, on human embryonic stem cell, so it is not that scientists don't think about it but when science leaves the laboratory  and goes into the field of technology and application, other factors, most notably money, come into play.
You have probably heard of the maverick scientist trying to clone the human embryo then having it implanted in a women and about people trying to fool around with germ line therapy in humans which is extremely dangerous since you don't know what the outcome will be. As we confront the brave new world of science, we need to look at the Ethics, Regulation and Precautionary Principles.
The precautionary principle is now becoming a very important cornerstone of all negotiations and transactions in the world of science. If there is insufficient evidence and you are uncertain, step back and exercise caution. Don't rush in where fools fear to tread. I think the way ahead is progress but with intelligence, maturity and responsibility. We must work with the approach that we hold this Earth only in custody for our children. In legal terms, this is defined as the principle of “Inter-Generational Equity”.  We are bound by a moral responsibility to hold the Earth and pass it on to our children in as intact a form as possible. I submit before you that the sentiment alone should guide the pursuit to science and technology.

Questions & Answers
Ms Sahai raised the issue of ethics, regulation and precaution. But Mr Specter, you didn't seem to agree with it. Is it really right to give science a free hand without caring too much about?
Michael Specter- I like ethics and regulations but there are a couple of things which I disagree with. For instance, the idea of making 1918 flu virus from scratch is a bad thing. It is extremely dangerous. Do you know how we make vaccines in the world? We make them today the way we made them in 1930s. When we grow vaccines in the 19th century traditions, we will die the 19th century way as well. After the precautionary principles, here are a couple of things we wouldn't have if there was too much regulation. We wouldn't have airplanes, x-rays, antibiotics, vaccines, televisions or radios and we wouldn't have nuclear power which I think is a great solution to one of the Earth's most pressing problems. So, precaution. Yes, apt but let's not confuse the greed of a company with the ability of science to accomplish things because I should say synthetic biology to me is not only a brave new world, it is the most exciting thing to happen in human history so I guess, we disagree on it.

Q. Ms Sahai, you mentioned that if water is provided then land, where only one crop is cultivated, two or three crops can be grown but Mr Specter mentioned that on a daily-basis 10,000 people are becoming middle-class right now. How do we cope up with it? The percentage of farmers is getting lower by the day. What do you suggest?
Suman Sahai- You have to grow crops because you need food. We can't say the middle-class is increasing and we can't say there is growing hunger. If we have growing hunger and if we have growing population as well, and we need to feed them, then we need to grow crops and an important input to grow crops is to get water for irrigation. If you have a GM crop in an area that doesn't have water, then it will not grow. The defining lacuna is water. Water is important for growing food.

Q: Mr Specter, you spoke of the ban on Bt brinjal. As a layman what I understood is that the minister after public hearing found that out of some 22 tests that were supposed to be done, only eight had been completed. What was more appalling was the fact that most of these tests were done not by independent bodies but entirely by the manufacturers. Therefore, they have now asked to complete the tests and then do a review.
Specter- I dispute those facts. Thousands of independent tests were done and there were thousands of independent studies elsewhere too. There is a clear safety profile in the question. It is legitimate to ask if the benefit is good enough to let the risks exist. I don't think those are always clear answers but in this case, I think it is pretty clear. As I said, it is something like soyabean or corn. It is not to improve the quality of life for people but there are dozens of new products about to come in the market that will help with drought resistance environments. I couldn't agree more about water but getting water to the places where we need it is really tough. It could be done but it can't be done easily and I think we need to look at other solutions and this is one of those solutions.

Q. The points raised by you Mr Specter are political and fair, sometime the arguments are not rational, they are more emotional. Ms Sahai, if we buy seeds from Monsanto, we would then be submitting ourselves to a new form of colonialism. The fact that all farmers will have to buy from a single source and then they would have monopolies, I mean these are issues that need to be addressed and Ms Sahai, would you like to speak on this matter?
Sahai- Sure, I think that as the debate progressed on genetically engineered crops, there was a lot of incorrect information going around. When you are taking a serious view, you are sifting the wheat from the chaff. On the question of control over seeds, I would say that it is a socio-political aspect not an emotional one. Who ever controls the seeds, will control to a very large extent the kind of agriculture and the kind of cash crop that will be cultivated.
Let me tell you something else-who is entitled to a patent, who is entitled to that control? Here is a new variety of seed that has been created, how many steps does it take to make this new variety? Let us say 100  steps , of which 80 to 90 steps have been contributed by farmers and later by a number of  scientists. It is only the last 5 or 10  steps of sticking in genes or taking out a genes that the molecular biologist does . The patent on the entire 100 steps is claimed by those who have contributed the last 5 to 10 steps! That is what a patent on seed is all about and that is why it is essentially incorrect, unethical and unjust. Patents cannot be granted to the corporates because they are not the real inventors. They have added just the tail end.   I would want to put things in perspective and say that there is a question of control on seed if you have a weak legal framework, if you do not have sufficient training in filing for intellectual property and your scientists and lawyers are not trained to play that game, then the playing field is not level and it is not fair. It is not really possible to grant patents on biology. Biological materials derive from nature and are constantly changing. The patent game is about using words and playing politics. Give me a patent on biology and I will tell you how to crack it.  
“There cannot be patents on seeds because there are several contributors to a seed, a variety. “

Q. Would you have accepted Bt brinjal if we did not have a patent issue associated with it and like the Internet, the technology and the processes were thrown open to public use.
“We neither have laws for labelling and liability nor any verification of the test protocols.”
Sahai- It is not about patents but about biosafety. There are a few things that we need to know. Was the Bt approach to control the so-called pest of brinjal necessary? The answer is no. The Bt gene controls a pest called caterpillar borer. That's all it does. The main pest of brinjal and the brinjal family to which tomatoes, and chillies also belong, is not caterpillar borer, it's a disease called bacterial wilt. If you really wanted to control the brinjal pest, you should have found a solution to bacterial wilt not the caterpillar.  You don't have a law for labelling, you don't have a law on liability, you don't have any independent verification of the tests, biosafety protocols are still fairly Neanderthal, test protocols for food safety are very elementary.  These are the things that  are going wrong. Pointing this out does not make you an opponent of science.
I think science and technology must go back to the lab when there are open questions and  research must continue till you find answers, till you come to the situation where you can confidently say, yes, this will work or no, we can't get the wrinkles out it will not work. The CSIRO in Australia worked for years on peas trying to make a transgenic pea to control a pest. They were not able to make a safe transgenic pea. When they  tested it for food safety, there were health issues like serious  inflammation in test animals. Finally, CSIRO decided this is not going to work so they shut the door on it and that is what honest science should do. Test till you are fairly confident that your product is safe and if you can't get the wrinkles out, shut the door.

Session Science and Health: Does Science Work Against Nature?
Suman Sahai - India Today Conclave 2010

Suman Sahai - India Today Conclave 2010
Suman Sahai - India Today Conclave 2010


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