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August 16, 2003

Brown Biotech

The NY Times has a nice article on a female biotechnology entrepreneur who is the "cutting edge" in India. Of course, as she admits, that's not saying much, India of all Third World nations has a built-in philosophical aversion to messing with God's creation since its religion tends to deify the Creation itself in a way that dualistic Western monotheism does not. Of course, it's nice to see that fat luddite pigs don't have a monopoly on the female scientific scene in India. Why do I use the term "fat luddite pig"? Click the link, and note the ample proportions of the beast that argues against GMOed foods because they are "unsafe." Unfortunately, if the people who are being protected die an early death because of malnutrition, that argument might seem somewhat moronic....

Godless comments:

The Times didn't mention India's biggest medical area field: generic drug manufacturing. As Derek Lowe puts it:

What's terrible about this foolishness is that India has a tremendous pool of scientific talent. For many years, much of it has left: you'd be hard pressed to find a technology-based US company of any decent size without Indian nationals working there. But they're finding plenty to do at home now, and they could keep on doing it. Or everyone could get into astrology - that's an option, too, and it has the benefit of being spiritual. You're damn well going to need a spiritual outlook if you go across a bridge that was built using Vedic math.

Everyone knows about the Indian software industry. Not many people realize that there are a lot of seriously good chemists there, too. India's past practice of ignoring international patent law has led to a large talent pool of process chemists, handy at coming up with efficient ways to knock off patented drugs. But now there's a strong home-grown pharmaceutical research firm (Dr. Reddy's) which is licensing new drug candidates to large companies in Europe and the US. So, should they keep on doing that?

and more

India laughs at patents. They always have. The companies there appropriate drugs, turn them over to their very competent process chemists, and crank them out on scale. Sometimes they've come up with more economical synthetic routes than the original company ever did. The Times calls India's drug market "brutally competitive," but it's a brutal competition to see who's quickest at ripping off the foreigners who actually discovered the drug. Getting approval to sell generic Glivec took a few months, "swift by American standards," says the article. Make that impossible by American standards, or more clearly, illegal by American standards (and the rest of the world's,) and you have a better picture. Mind you, this approval was "unusually long and tedious" by Indian reckoning.

Doctors in India, though, the article says, realized ". . .the pragmatic aims of the company's philanthropy. The giveaway was a means, they contend, to establish a commerical beachhead. . ." Shock me. This is how the market works, the seeking of competitive advantage. In this case, it turns out that there's an advantage to giving some of the drug out for free (or at least a disadvantage for not doing it.)

Haven't any of these people read anything by Adam Smith? Hasn't anyone at the Times? And, as it turns out, the Indian generic companies have felt the pressure, and are stepping up to supply the drug to people in the free program. Good for them. Smith would be able to tell them that it's not all coming from the goodness of their hearts, and properly so.

What Hong Kong is to software piracy, India is to drug piracy... ;)

Posted by razib at 09:25 PM

I read something awhile back about India promoting "open source" biotech, as a way of recognizing the potential benefits of biotechnology but the undesirability of Monsanto collecting royalties controlling the country's food supply via patents.

Posted by: Chris W at August 16, 2003 09:58 PM

fat luddite pig is right! I wonder what kind of genes would be expressed if she married someone like Ralph Nader.

Posted by: jim at August 17, 2003 08:48 AM

i really wouldn't be so offended if she wasn't obese in a country where most people are somewhat malnourished. there's something gross in the whole scene, at least american organicists are decently emaciated.

Posted by: razib at August 17, 2003 12:51 PM

While India's traditional rejection of product patents in favor of process patents is well established, this will soon fade. India will begin recognizing Western-style product patents in 2005, since it signed the TRIPs agreement. Partly this was out of self-interest. Large Indian pharmaceutical firms such as Dr. Reddy's and Cipla want to move up the value chain and develop new drugs of their own.

Secondly, such product patents help promote drug research into diseases that mostly affect poorer countries. It would not be economical for Abbott or Pfizer to use American researchers to develop a drug for use in the subcontinent or Africa, as the could never price in a way to recoup their investment and be affordable to those populations. However, using cheaper Indian talent would make such pricing more feasible, although too many drugs still face price controls.

Posted by: KXB at August 17, 2003 03:00 PM

Hmmmm. Razib, the biotech debate is not as cut and dried as you make it seem. There are *serious* issues that need to be dealt with before India - or for that matter any 3rd world country - embraces transgenic crops.

There is a possibility that in the short run India's textile industry could be crippled with neighboring China gaining a substantial cost advantage over India having already chosen to grow bt. cotton, but then the long-term impact of this is yet to be assessed. Vandana Shiva's leftist position is that the use of Bt. cotton and other transgenic crops will reduced the use of market purchased pesticides. Such reductions would benefit poorer farmers, but would also reduce demand for labour in application, at the cost of wage laborers. Considering 70 % of India is employed in the agricultural sector, it makes sense to ensure that income disparities within this sector don't widen.

Another point I'd like to address : India's food woes are often attributed to insufficient production. Actually, the problem isn't production but distribution. India recorded a surplus food production of over 200 million tons last year but this buffer stock is not reaching the people it is meant for and contrary to intentions food from it is being exported at subsidized prices. Even if GM crops become popular in India & agro-productivity rises substantially its benefits won't percolate down to the rural poor unless the country fixes its distribution system.

All of this doesn't imply that India doesn't stand to benefit from the GM revolution : value added traits expected to be incorporated into transgenic crops include certain pharmaceutical properties. These "edible vaccines" could prove revolutionary in India. Also, the benefits of increased yield in regions that already produce inadequate food - for reasons like drought, etc. -are ignored by the likes of Vandana Shiva. These are the very regions that need food to be transferred to them through the public distribution system. Transgenic crops would enable them to produce sufficient food in spite of erratic weather, droughts and other phenomena that they have no control over. The problem though is that Western companies are understandably motivated by the demand for profits and don't research crops that would benefit the average farmer in LDCs [1] . We should admit that certain 3rd world "luddite pigs" are cognizant of these facts and may not be *entirely* incorrect in their opposition to GM crops :) I think a middle-of-the-road approach ought to be taken : a cost/benefit analysis to ascertain whether India benefits in the long term by opting for GM crops produced in the West + the government earmarking funds for biotechnology research to produce India specific crops + improving the public distribution system.

[1] The Golden Rice technology is an exception and was developed in universities in Switzerland and Germany but handed over to poor countries without any charge. This of course was funded on public money and such generosity cannot be expected from private companies.

Posted by: king kong at August 18, 2003 03:32 AM

I don't know what the trade off would be for using GM foods in India, but farmers in North American have reason to be angry. Monsanto was forcing them to buy seeds for sowing which, once they were grown, had no seeds. This is, I think, unprecedented in historically known food crops. The seed is the germ of life and the food grown is missing it--there are psychological implications here, not to mention nutritional. In any case, the farmers cannot use some of their crop for sowing the next year and are forced to buy from Monsanto (holy mountain irony.) There are reasons that government types push this company's policies, but there is plenty of information out there on the subject. As has been mentioned, it is not so simple and everyone who opposes it cannot be written off as a "luddite." Please--aren't you used to people trying to silence reasonble difference of opinions with epithets?

Posted by: MaryClaire at August 18, 2003 05:29 AM

Yeah, MaryClaire, resistance to GM crops in India was primarily based on biopiracy, domination by Multinationals and bondage of farmers to seed companies. Monsanto's "terminator" technology causes the next generation of seeds to become sterile forcing farmers to pay Monsanto every year for new seeds. Even assuming farmers still opt for it, there remains a serious problem : traits from genetically-engineered crops get passed on to neighboring crops. Terminator seeds may pass on their seed sterility to other organic crops making a significant chunk of seeds in the region sterile. The issue that needs resolution is that of liability for contamination. Who is responsible when organic crops are damaged due to transgenic crops ? Will these Multinational firms be willing to own up responsibility ? This is why I believe there needs to be a strong regulatory framework put in place to protect the interests of farmers before 3rd world countries allow Multinationals like Monsanto unfettered access to their markets.

Posted by: king kong at August 18, 2003 12:04 PM

Like I wrote (but it didnt' seem to have posted)
Outsourcing Biotech will go to India very soon.

Posted by: David at August 18, 2003 02:08 PM

Predictable response godless. If Monsanto is cowed for now, good; but I wouldn't hold my breath. Monsanto was the only source for the seed crops for these farmers, that was the problem. No corner seed shops. There are scientists, objective and just as bright as anyone here, who have made the case against GM crops and their undesirable effect on the environment, taking in the big picture. 40 yrs ago Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex, creating a peace-time defense industry where none had been before. Now we have multi-national food factories. They swallow you whole, these Beasts. Again, in the case of India, who knows. GM is better than famine, but are these the only two options?

Posted by: MaryClaire at August 19, 2003 05:36 AM

"Sterility can not spread through a population over generations and sterility certainly cannot cause the loss of a species"

Heh. I never said that it would cause the loss of plant species. But now that you bring it up, Vandana Shiva is opposed to the trend toward monoculture and the resultant loss of biodiversity. A very germane point regarding the benefit of biodiversity is that many of the potential gains from unresearched plant varieties are unknown, undiscovered and unresearched. It is estimated that twelve to fifteen percent of modern medicines have ingredients that come from tropical rainforests with the potential for a lot more. Destroying these varieties might mean cutting off potential future miracle drugs.

"The objection was to Monsanto's attempt to protect its intellectual property"

To reiterate what I said in my previous post : resistance to GM crops in India was primarily based on biopiracy, domination by Multinationals and bondage of farmers to seed companies. Bio-piracy of course relates to the patenting of unpatented genetic material that is cultivated by local communities in LDCs which is pre-emptively patented under the WTO license regime by MNCs. Under Article 27 of the TRIPS agreements such indigenous knowledge is not free or protected from such predation unless national governments make a case that there's a strong possibility of health risk or environmental damage. The TRIPS is a complicated issue as the UN Earth Summit at Rio in 1992 signed the Convention on Bio-Diversity which unlike TRIPS does respect the rights of indigenous people to cultivate and have collective ownership over their genetic, biological and plant material. The tension between the TRIPS and CBD has not been resolved though the latter is more in the way of a generalized agreement of principles rather than a formal treaty and so has been harder to enforce. If the third world is circumspect about the intentions of Multinational companies[1] then I wouldn't blame.

"The consumer is the one who's choosing here, and obviously the activists are afraid that the consumer will decide to buy these seeds"

Again, it's not as simple as you think it is. Monsanto heavily lobbied the policy makers in India to let them in and finally permission for undertaking large-scale field trials was granted to Monsanto by the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation. The sowing of cotton for the field trial that year was done two months later than the usual month. Which meant that the results submitted to the government's body understated the level of insect attacks by not incorporating the insect attacks from the first two months. This was a case of state complicity and the consumer was being mislead - activists stepped in to disseminate information regarding the matter. The activists may or may not have a hidden agenda. But Monsanto should have come clean about the integrity of its data so that consumers could make an informed choice.

"What is lost or intentionally obscured in the discussion is that transgenic crops produce bumper yields in uncertain climates, reduce the use of pesticides, and so on"

I don't claim it doesn't happen. The jury is still out on whether it is beneficial in the long run. To repeat what I advocate : a cost/benefit analysis to ascertain whether India benefits in the long term by opting for GM crops produced in the West + the government earmarking funds for biotechnology research to produce India specific crops + improving the public distribution system.

I'm not opposed to GM per se, but I think India should tread this uncharted territory with due caution. There are two issues here:

1. Are transgenic varieties beneficial to Indian farmers ? If GMO research was concentrated in areas which would be of direct value to marginal farmers such as drought resistant crops, less water intensive ones and ones that could flourish in semi-arid climes with poor soil quality then it would indeed be a substantial measure. But this is not where the bulk of research is concentrated at the moment - it is a lot less lucrative.

2. Projects funded by the Indian government like the protato - a protein enhanced potato which contains 40% more protein than wild or cultivated potatoes - are safe for poor Indian farmers as the government *necessarily* will own up responsibilty and compensate farmers should any problem arise.

"As far as I know, Monsanto discontinued self-sterilizing seeds in 1999 in response to widespread Luddism, though they are pursuing related IP-protecting technologies"

Monsanto's Indian joint-venture partner Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds company, in which Monsanto holds a 26% stake was producing self-sterilizing crops as late as 2001. I don't know whether it has been discontinued now but i'll check.

"Monsanto never "forced" farmers to buy seeds with the sterility programmed in. It's a free market decision, and they could always use non-transgenic seeds. But they don't"

Monsanto's policy of raising seed prices was unethical. It had "aimed to consolidate the whole food chain" [2] by offering seeds at rock-bottom prices and then jacked them up thereby screwing over the ordinary 3rd world farmer, who had not anticipated the increase. There were cases of farmers reverting to non-transgenic seeds, but even these were more expensive than the rock-bottom prices that Monsanto had earlier offered.

"What exactly is wrong with multinationals? You guys wear and eat plenty of things made by multinationals. There are certain quality assurances that come from an economy of scale (Sony, Honda, Intel, etc.) that do not come from Mom & Pop at the corner store"

Nothing wrong with Multinationals. India is trying to encourage foreign investment by raising equity caps. This issue however is different - we aren't talking about the FMCG sector where economies of scale and competition benefit the consumer. This is a seed oligopoly where a handful of companies can collectively manipulate the illiterate farmers in rural areas, who are particularly vulnerable. If there is a strong regulatory framework established this can be pre-empted.

"GM is better than famine, but are these the only two options"

GM is better than famine, but the need of the hour is to improve the public distribution system in India. Like I said, India produces more than it can consume.

[1] Google "Bhopal Gas" and see why the 3rd world isn't convinced about the altruistic intentions of companies like Monsanto.

[2] Not my quote, that's what one of the Directors of Monsanto told the press.

Posted by: king kong at August 19, 2003 08:55 AM