India’s biotech companies have two new opportunities—to help create a second green revolution and to assist the government in the fight against disease.
The mood at an industry shindig that concluded in Bangalore last week was understandably congratulatory. The Indian biotech industry has grown at a scorching pace, led by exports. It must now pay heed to the domestic market, as the IT industry is.
India faces a double whammy, harbouring illnesses of both developed and developing nations. And the food crisis has scared the wits out of the government.
Illustration: Jayachandran/ Mint
Industry must come forward to strengthen public health system technologies. A host of vaccine and diagnostics programmes are currently being undertaken by the department of biotechnology, or DBT, in collaboration with the global non-profits such as the Malaria Vaccine Initiative and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as US research centres such as the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Industry involvement is crucial for commercialization of these technologies and further innovation.
These initiatives can make business sense as well, thanks to a large market, the possibility of tax sops and the inevitable decline in export margins.
The government promises to buy vaccines and fund new innovation. DBT secretary M.K. Bhan had said last week that the kind of money that is available today for such products was “unprecedented”. In fact, DBT is getting ready to share risk and directly invest in biotech start-ups.
But it is agriculture that needs the most imaginative application of biotechnology. Officials say that despite the availability of several agro-based technologies with DBT, most inquiries for commercial use remain confined to vermin-compost or agro-waste management.
Biotech companies and researchers need to engage in new, fundamental science that increases yield rather than minimize crop losses by fighting pests and diseases. A lot of time and resources today are spent in using available genes to improve breeding varieties, either through marker-assisted selection or by creating transgenic crops.
Could we do innovative biotechnology and develop crops and foodgrains that would counter the deficiencies that India exhibits: lack of zinc, iron and vitamin A owing largely to vegetarianism?
We are limited, at least initially, by our imagination.
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