Journalists around the world recently received an email, inviting them to compete in the Shell Economist writing competition on a provocative subject: "Do we need nature?" The answer would seem obvious but, as the organizers themselves reminded would-be competitors, with the advent of biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops, the entire scenario has changed. If food and fiber can be produced in the laboratory, do we still need to preserve wild plants and animals, which collectively go under the title "biodiversity"?
With GM technology, the debate regarding our dependence or otherwise on nature, far from abating, has intensified. As in the case of the Green Revolution, which based itself on high-yielding grains, GM crops narrow the genetic base of agriculture. Indeed, some food crops will possess specific pesticide-resistant properties which would permit seed companies to promote their brands.
The US multinational Monsanto was toying with the idea of developing what critics called "terminator technology", implying seeds that would self-destruct, so to speak, without the capacity to propagate. All this would take us further from nature's diversity, not to mention the hardships it would impose on farmers who would always have to buy their seeds from the market, even if they wanted to save and plant their own. Faced with a barrage of criticism, Monsanto has temporarily retreated on this front.
India is one of the 12 "mega-diversity" countries in the world, with about seven per cent of all wild plants and animals on just two per cent of the earth's surface. In other words, it is one of the "diverse dozen" countries on the planet. Last year saw the publication of an excellent report on the National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan, for which the technical and policy core group was the Pune-based NGO, Kalpavriksh.
The report reminds us that although the proportion of the country's GDP contributed by the primary sector - agriculture, forests, fisheries and related activities - is declining, it provides employment to as much as 58 per cent of all workers. Since 72 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, people depend on these land and water resources for their food, health, shelter and livelihood systems. In fact, several communities derive their name from the occupation or craft they pursue, as the series of studies called "The Peoples of India" by the Anthropological Survey of India points out.
Diversity is still measured by the yardstick developed by Russian scientist N I Vavilov half a century ago. He divided the world's crop-producing regions into eight centers of plant origin. India figures in this list because about 166 species of crops and 320 species of wild relatives of cultivated crops are believed to have originated here. These have been enriched by "migrations" from both Africa as well as the Indo-Malayan region, not to mention deliberate or accidental introduction by travellers, invaders, missionaries and others through the course of Indian history.
Rice is a classic example. According to Dr S D Sharma of the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack (Orissa), at least 50,000 varieties of rice have been grown in India till fairly recently. Unfortunately, with the new so-called improved varieties, the range of all food and other crops is rapidly diminishing. Worldwide, as many as 80,000 plants edible plants have been identified in human history, of which 3,000 have been used consistently. However, only 150 have been cultivated on a large scale and just 10 to 20 provide 80 to 90 per cent of calories today. Modern agriculture, as the report points out, suffers from "genetic poverty".
In February, India's Lower House of Parliament (Lok Sabha) passed the Biological Diversity Bill. This legislation is a Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) measure, closely connected with the new patent regime, and puts in place a framework for protecting the country's enormous diversity from exploitation by domestic or foreign companies. Local communities - at least on paper - stand to benefit when traditional knowledge is appropriately utilized.
As things are, living substances - plants and animals - are excluded from the Indian Patents Act and the new GM regime makes it imperative to encompass them. While TRIPS confers monopoly rights to commercial users of biodiversity, the controversial Convention on Biological Diversity, pushed through by the UN system, gives indigenous knowledge the same protection as bio-resources.
India's biodiversity strategy and action plan was remarkable as much for its conclusions as for the transparent and participatory manner in which it was formulated, thanks almost exclusively to the involvement of Kalpavriksh. There was a series of biodiversity marches, exhibitions, public hearings and other expressions of people's beliefs in the wealth of their natural resource base, all of which have contributed to this rich and diverse document.