The oracle of biotechnology

  • 30/05/1994

The oracle of biotechnology WHEN the Slovak, Gregor Mendel, wrote an obscure paper in 1866 after experimenting on peas for about 7 years, little did he realise that he had stirred a hornet's nest. His experiments were perhaps the world's first brush with what is today known as "biotechnology".

It was not until much later that DNA, the blueprint of life, was discovered and this science took a giant leap forward -- right onto the coals of controversy. The Plant Gods?, produced by Mindseye Pictures and directed by Rob King, is dedicated to this pioneer of biotechnology, and deals with the very controversies that surround the science. Questions related to ethics, environment and economics (which this technology throws up as a matter of routine) are addressed in this hour-long film. Scientists, researchers, environmental activists, government officials, multinational corporations, among a host of others in the direct line of fire, take turns to air their points of view.

Agricultural scientists tell you that if the 10 billion world population has to be fed and maintain its quality of life, biotechnology is the only answer. "In the last 80-90 years, the yields of only a few plant species have increased, while there has been a 400 per cent increase in world population. Thus, we have become more dependent on a select few species for our food requirements," explains Dr Wilf Keller of National Research Council, Saskatoon, Canada.

Biotechnology can enable the farmer to double the protein content of cereals. The film turns to a member of a farmers' union who argues that feeding people is not a problem of lax production but that of "maldistribution and poverty".

According to the union, "the research efforts, especially the privatised researches, are not geared to feed more people, they are geared to get more profits for some multinationals." Multinational corporations, however, contend that if North American farmers do not increase their output, then they are bound to miss the opportunity of exporting to Asia, where there is a surge in food requirement. An official from Hoechst, a pharmaceutical, pitches in to say that even farmers work for profits and dthat biotechnology is one more option, one more tool, in their production cycle.

Research in biotechnology has already gained enough momentum to worry the environmentalist. Biotechnology control centres around 3 major concerns: Who runs the technology? Who owns and directs the selling of transgenic seeds? Who controls the resultant produce?

Monitoring biotech
According to Pollution Probe, an environmental monitoring agency, "Farmers, unions, doctors, environmental groups should together decide which part of the whole process needs to be controlled." It is important that the process of genetic engineering itself is regulated in order to safeguard the public interest. Plant genetic systems produce environmentally crippled seeds, which cannot survive without human intervention because they have lost their ability to adapt competitively. Further, genetically engineered plant varieties can adversely affect other neighbouring crops.

Pollution Probe accuses seed companies of being secretive about their field trials, and the Canadian government of neglecting the technology's risk factors. This charge is, however, vehemently denied by an Agriculture Canada official. "We are not only interested in the final products, but also how they are derived. We always look at the final safety of the product before it is commercialised."

Argues a scientist from Hudson Institute, "Genetically engineered products that undergo thorough testing and monitoring are safer than those that are done by simple crossbreedings in which results appear much later." One is warned against the unsubstantiated faith that people seem to place on scientists; we are told that it is not the scientists who make decisions, but those who pay them.

The film ends on the note that society can neither afford to blindly follow the activists nor the scientists; the solution lies with the well-informed and educated public from whom will come reason.

Unfortunately, for such a strongly debated subject, the film lacks visual breaks which could have lightened the monotony of shifting from one talking head to another. Other than the debators, all that is shown are a few clips of cropland and North American laboratories. Like many other documentaries made in the West, this one also added some mandatory shots of the crowded streets of Asia and its starving people. The picturisation is rather unimaginative, making it difficult to sit through the entire film. It could have certainly done with some graphics or good outdoor coverage.

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