Can we afford to be left behind?

  • 14/10/1993
  • WHO

AS A FRONTIER technology today, genetic engineering is attracting the best scientific minds the world over. The ability to manipulate the genetic make-up of living things has the potential, theoretically at least, to transform human health and world agriculture. It also has immense ethical and safety implications for humankind and the environment we inhabit.

As yet, almost all the expertise and research in this area lies in the developed world, and again, most of this is privately held and jealously guarded by patents. Attracted by the promise of huge commercial dividends, numerous pharmaceutical and agrochemical corporations have entered this area. The biotech industry is estimated to exceed the $100 billion mark by 2000.

The products this technology is currently throwing up are mainly aimed at cornering markets in the rich societies of the North. Genetically engineered plants, which reduce costs incurred in fighting weeds, insects and disease have assured markets in the North. Recombinant DNA technology promises exceedingly glamorous results in the medical field, especially for well-heeled patients willing to pay for esoteric therapies. Research on gene therapy, for example, is concentrating on degenerative diseases of the aged like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, or those like Gaucher's that afflict small populations.

Most of these results have little relevance for developing countries as yet. In the North, health budgets range from $500 to $1,500 per person per year, according to the World Health Organisation. But in parts of the developing world, they are as low as $4. Drug companies have little interest in developing therapies for diseases that afflict the poor.

The dominance of the developed world in this area of research is perhaps inevitable. But can we afford to be left behind? Already, US seed companies have patented transgenic cotton and other crops. Reportedly, Monsanto, the agrochemical giant wanted to sell to India a genetically engineered variety of cotton for some $8 billion.

It is important that a coherent biotechnology research agenda, which addresses problems relevant to our needs, is developed. Genetic engineering can provide powerful tools to diagnose diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis and provide safe and effective vaccines against several tropical diseases. In agriculture, efforts to develop drought and salinity tolerance and pest resistance in crops can boost productivity in marginal lands.

Focussed and product-oriented research is, however, essential. The Indian scientific experience has shown that resources and energies are often spread far too thin. Biotechnology is research intensive and investments in infrastructure are comparatively low. So efforts to form cohesive groups to tackle particular problems are necessary.

Nevertheless, genetic engineering is not a panacea that can solve all problems. It must be kept in mind that genetic engineering efforts will not bear fruit before we are well into the next century. Therefore, it is essential, especially in the area of plant breeding, that traditional research strategies are not abandoned in search of a biotechnological eldorado.

This technology is not without its dangers and limitations. Scientific information on the risks of releasing genetically manipulated organisms to the earth's ecology and to human health have not yet been properly quantified. Because they are alive, genetically engineered organisms are inherently more unpredictable than chemical products that enter the environment.

It can be argued that developing countries should avoid such an area of research till all problems are sorted out. But will industrialised countries and their big companies also do so? Third World research planners must, therefore, assess the dangers of an early entry in this area of research as compared to the cost of domination, protected by patents, which will result from a late entry. Watchdog bodies are needed to oversee biotechnology research institutes and production facilities.

The genetic information being gathered under the international multibillion dollar project to decipher the human genome raises several ethical issues. Some 50 years ago, genetic information in a cruder form formed the basis of the pseudoscience -- eugenics. Information about a person's genetic predilection for certain diseases or behaviour patterns, could be used to discriminate against them. If such information was easily available, health insurance, marriages and jobs could become that much more difficult.

Earlier this century, scientists delved deep into the nature of matter. They learnt to split the atom, and as a consequence, obtained power unparalleled in the history of the human race. This nuclear energy could be harnessed to destroy the planet or to enhance the quality of life of its people.

Likewise as the century draws to a close, science lies on the brink of understanding the secret of life. Similarly, genetic engineering can be used to enhance life or to destroy it. But has humankind learnt to control technology for the human good?

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