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Are we ready for genetically-modified bananas via Australia?

Shalini Bhutani , April 22, 2013 22:32 IST

Even before the debate on the safety regime on genetically modified (GM) food crops has been settled in India, there are now new challenges with GM fruit in the pipeline. This time it is with the banana, supposedly modified at the genetic level in the laboratories of Australia being shipped to India. But this is not simply about an Oz connection.

The Australian Queensland University of Technology (QUT) signed a deal with the Government of India's Department of Biotechnology in August 2012 which is to run for six years. Professor James Dale, Director of Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, heads the project at QUT.

As per the planned first phase of the project, which is in the news now, the technology is being transferred from Australia to the five Indian partner institutes. The first being the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute based in Mohali, Punjab.

Then the National Research Centre for Bananas of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research at Tiruchirappalli. Ironically NRCB has one of the Asia’s largest field genebanks with 340 indigenous accessions of banana. The Indian Institute of Horticultural Research near Bangalore. Also, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay, Mumbai and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University's Centre for Plant Molecular Biology & Biotechnology, Coimbatore.

In stage two the training of Indian scientists will be undertaken. As per previous media reports India's Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) will provide US$1.44 million towards the QUT component of the project and Rs 80 million (US$1.43 million) towards the cost of the Indian component. The priority areas (2012-2013) for the Oz-India biotech R&D include 'Biotechnological Interventions for improved agricultural productivity'.

Collaborative research


Support for biotech R&D is provided under Indo-Australian Fund for S&T Cooperation in Biotechnology (Indo-Australian Biotechnology Fund) for bilateral collaborative research projects and workshops involving Indian and Australian partners. This has been an on going programme since 2006.

That was also the year in which both countries signed a Trade and Economic Framework (TEF). The TEF institutionalises government-to-government collaboration in a range of activities including biotechnology. A specific MoU for a Joint Biotechnology Committee (led by Australia’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and India’s DBT) was also signed in 2006.

In December 2011, the biotech industry propaganda body – ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications) reported that a USD 7.07 million grant was given by the United States Agency for International Development to Cornell University for research on the Matoke banana. The grant is managed by the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Project (ABSP II) in Cornell.

The project is to run from August 2011 to August 2016. It is focused on the Matoke – a GM East African Highland (EAH) banana, which is one of Uganda's primary food staples, apparently feeding more than half of the population. Aside from its good nutritional value, it is also a source of income for most Ugandan farmers.

In 2009 at the G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy the US President Obama had announced a US Government initiative Feed the Future (FTF). This is led by USAID. The ABSP II Banana project is part of FTF Uganda and very much part of US facilitated Ugandan government plans for the implementation of the multilateral Uganda Nutrition Action Plan (UNAP).

Through the GM banana project, ABSP II also aims to build the biotech capacity of Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation. The Government of India is also keen to embrace modern biotechnology in its mission towards food security. Thus crops and fruits 'bio-fortified' technologically and not naturally seem to be on its menu of things.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been supporting Professor Dale and his team at QUT since 2005. This is part of BMGF's Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) part of the CGIAR and headquartered in Nigeria held the first Pan-African Banana Conference in 2008. Its main aim was to develop a 10-year R&D strategy to boost the banana industry. The said Conference was also funded by BMGF.

Just as USAID provides support for the GM Bt Brinjal R&D in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Likewise, it is doing so for GM Bananas in Africa, which are then also to be used in India. The Australian GM bananas sure have a strong US flavour.

(The writer has been working on issues of biosafety in agriculture)

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