Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Biotechnology is touted to be the key to the future of mankind and it is supposed to spearhead the second Green Revolution to achieve quantum increase in food production to feed the ever expanding population, especially in the Third World. Some critiques argue that the current food production is adequate to feed every human being on this planet with 2800 kC equivalent of food which if really eaten can be a right recipe for obesity! As against this UN agencies like FAO and many rich countries are pitching for genetic engineering to increase the food availability with the presumption that the main reason for 800 million people going hungry is due to inability of the food production to achieve growth rates in keeping with the population growth.

Biotechnology which started with the traditional hybridization techniques in fifties and sixties has assumed high degree of sophistication with sustained R & D inputs during the last 3 decades. Tissue culture, cell culture, genetic modification all have increased the capability of mankind to evolve better quality seeds and planting materials with different desirable characteristics. Thousands of Biotechnology companies and public funded breeding organizations were actively pursuing R & D and production of biotechnology based products. In early nineties there were about 1000 biotech upstarts trying their hand on commercial application of biotechnology in agriculture but to day a dozen big companies have cornered more than 75% of revenue, remaining being shared by hundreds of smaller firms still engaged in this business. Becoming big and bigger and edging out small ones have resulted in cartelization and monopolistic vice grip on the agriculture, agri-chemicals and pharmaceutical areas. Top 10 companies globally control 55% of drug market. Similarly 10 top companies account for more than 90% sales of agri-chemicals.

What is worrisome is not the profits earned by these monopolists but how the world resources get concentrated in a few private players edging out millions of small and marginal farmers, besides propagating systems that consume more fossil fuels and cause uncontrolled green house gas emissions. Almost 30% of worlds biomass has already been 'commodified' to earn greater returns for the speculators and major biotech players. It is a question of time before the rest is also commodified by deploying high end genetic engineering and new corporate strategies by the biotech monoliths. With fossil fuel future uncertain, major efforts will be mounted in the coming years to create designer microorganisms based on synthetic DNA and such biological manufacturing platforms can make fuels, chemicals, drugs and high value products using plant derived sugars. One of the predictions being made so often these days is that the 21st century will see the sugar economy taking over the primary responsibility for industrial production based on biological feed stocks such as agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae etc. Synthetic microbes will become 'living chemical factories" that require massive quantities of plant biomass which will be generated using energy intensive technologies by giant corporates with unlimited resources.

It is well known that 25% of the proprietary seeds marketed to day comes from single US-based company, Monsanto Chemicals. Though remaining 75% are raised locally by millions of farmers in their impoverished lands, the declining productivity is bound to push these farmers into the fold of GM giants like Monsanto in the coming years enabling the latter to control the nature the way they want. In the retail sector the consumers in developed countries are patronizing big players like Wal Marts controlling about 15% of the food market. But fortunately 85% of the remaining foods are consumed close to the areas where they are grown. It is unlikely that big retailers will be able to emulate the records of their counterparts in the production front in view of the new focus on local foods globally. Probably the modern food technology may have to take part of the blame because technologies such as controlled atmosphere storage and transport systems have enabled the big industry to move the perishable foods over long distances for selling at far away markets with high margins.

If Biotechnological power does not percolate down to the farmimg community in poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America and if rich countries promote the interests of the large biotech companies ignoring the human catastrophic consequences that will follow, the future of mankind is indeed bleak. It is unfair to use WTO to harm the interests of poor farming nations by bringing agricultural production under its purview. It must confine itself to only trade related portfolio.


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