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The pros and cons of stem cells

Aparna Krishnan

NEW DELHI, July 20

HOW safe are GMFs (genetically modified foods)? Can we use stem cells in embryos for fertilisation? Are transgenic seeds viable? These were some of the concerns that practically overshadowed the main theme of the International Biotechnology Conference in New Delhi. That theme being Formulating Regulatory Reforms.

In fact, as one delegate pointed out, the very basis of what biotechnology stands for and is understood as, was debated time and again. Participants included scientists and those from industry and the farming community. They debated on the perils and ben efits of biotechnology.

Different technological methods were cited as scientists and industry exchanged notes over the three-day session. As a panelist said, it was felt that the time allocated was not enough. ``Growth hormones, hormone replacement therapy, human insulin throug h transgenic animals, bioinformatics, genomics, proteonomics, the list is endless,'' she said.

Whether India can surge ahead in the biotechnology (BT) race as it did in information technology, albeit starting off 10 years late, was a question posed often by the independent participants. Many were optimistic while others disagreed.

One of them, Mr Sharad Joshi, Chairman, Task Force on Agriculture, said in his opening address that although IT and BT were dubbed India Technology and Bharat Technology, the average farmer still has to grapple with traditional problems such as irrigatio n and power. ``I don't think that biotechnology can forge ahead when basic issues are not tackled. One still expects the farmer to work with age-old methods,'' he said.

However, the farmer's representative also said: ``Give us the right to chose the transgenic seeds and technology. We will work out from there.''

Dr Gurudev Kush from the International Rice Research Institute, who had been involved in the research of Golden Rice said: ``Nature of food should be the issue rather than the methods.''

Concerns over the safety standards used, especially during clinical trials involving animals dominated sessions across the board, as well as the ethical issues involved.

The scientific community talked with zeal about the various opportunities that biotech would throw open.

The bubble burst in the session dedicated to non-Governmental organisations. Dr Amitava Mukherjee of Development Tracks, said: ``It is a myth that biotechnology is totally safe. There are certain hazards involved that should also be highlighted.''

Issues such as whether the technology would be relevant and permeate to the grassroot levels were raised. Mrs Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign, India, questioned the relative secretive nature of corporates mainly in R&D. ``Exclusive and proprietary nature of companies for every research project is not right as genetic resources are every individual's property,'' she said.

The moot point at the end of the day, would be that biotechnology is likely to invade an average Indian's life much like information technology did.

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