AGRICULTURE TRIBUNE Monday, September 17, 2001, Chandigarh, India

Whose science, devil’s or God’s?
Aditya Rishi
nce a biotechnologist was twisting the neck of a frog in a laboratory to break its spinal chord when a woman saw him. She said, “Doctor, you are heartless. How will killing a poor little frog help you in any way?” The doctor said, “Madam, it will help me save your father’s life when he suffers a heart attack or a stroke one day.” This incident clearly shows how unclear people are about the role of biotechnology in our life. We don’t know who is controlling this science — the devil or the God; perhaps both; and sometimes, at the same time.

Asia’s useful trees and plants
K. L. Noatay
un, or the red cedar, is a large-sized deciduous tree. Its scientific name is cederla toona. Some botanists tend to mix the main species with other sister, but less common species like cederla serata or cederla microcarpa. The family is meliaceae.

Farm operations for September



Whose science, devil’s or God’s?
Aditya Rishi

Once a biotechnologist was twisting the neck of a frog in a laboratory to break its spinal chord when a woman saw him. She said, “Doctor, you are heartless. How will killing a poor little frog help you in any way?” The doctor said, “Madam, it will help me save your father’s life when he suffers a heart attack or a stroke one day.” This incident clearly shows how unclear people are about the role of biotechnology in our life. We don’t know who is controlling this science — the devil or the God; perhaps both; and sometimes, at the same time. Biotechnology encompasses techniques applied to organisms or parts thereof to produce, identify or design substances or to modify organisms for specific applications. Cell fusion techniques, hybridomas, recombinant DNA technology, protein engineering and structure-based molecular design are modern biotechnology.

Conventional biotechnology includes fermentation or conversion of substrates into the desired products through biological processes, downstream processing for the recovery of metabolites and the use of microbes or enzymes for producing value-added products, vaccines, artificial insemination techniques, bio-fertilisers and pesticides, plant breeds, animal breeds and techniques of embryo transfer and tissue culture.

Biotechnologists use molecular and biological keys and tools to produce wealth. Genetic engineering biotechnology aims at modifying hereditary properties of organisms. These properties are located in the gene of humans, animals and plants.

Genes or parts of genes (or the DNA) are taken from one species and merged with the genetic material from another organism. Imagine how they do it!

However, the science is in its early days and imprecise. The insertion of a new gene cannot be guided to a predetermined position in the genetic structure of the receiving organism. How the properties of an organism will change with the introduction of a new gene cannot be predicted. The properties of genetically modified organisms seem to be unstable because the organism tries to re-establish its original stable structure. That is how comic-book characters teenage mutant Ninja Turtles came into existence. Fiction is often not far from the truth.

Genetic engineering biotechnology in agriculture is not the same as normal breeding that involves cross-pollination or mating. It is an industrial technology that combines the genetic material of different species that would never combine in nature with traditional farming methods. That should make us ask the experts what are the risks of genetic engineering to animals, plants and the other organisms.

Yes, a genetically engineered crop may be potentially fatal because it contains an anti-biotic resistant gene that can escape into the environment. Though many experts claim that the use of this gene is safe, many governments in the world have rejected the claim. The risk is small, but it gives rise to concerns about life threatening implications. The gene could escape into the environment and possibly be inhaled by people. If the gene emerged in resistant strains of a sexually transmitted disease, it would become untraceable.

Genetically engineered crops might affect weeds and reduce the food and habitat of insects and birds. Farmers cannot stop the spreading of these crops to neighbouring fields and wider environments. Most of our food already contains genetically engineered components. An investigation of genetically engineered yeast, containing extra copies of genes involved in the metabolism of glucose, found that these also accumulate a highly toxic and mutagenic substance called methylglyoxal. Careful thought should be given to the nature and safety of metabolic products when genetically engineered yeast is used in the food related fermentation processes because the current ways of risk assessment are not advanced enough. As a result, since one cannot test for an unknown health hazard, it is clear that only by applying pharmacological-type toxicity testing can the risks of food engineered in biotechnology laboratories be adequately assessed.

Every new drug that is produced in these laboratories should go through pre-clinical tests on animals and extensive clinical trials on human volunteers. An example of how seriously flawed scientists may become is illustrated by the decision to accept the principle of “substantial equivalence” for the assessment of the safety of genetically engineered foods. The principle means that if a genetically engineered food appears to be similar to its natural counterpart, it can be assumed to be as safe as the natural variety. Lawyers working for biotechnology industry invented this concept. Liars indeed!

“Substantially equivalent” foods were allowed by law to be put onto the market without thorough safety tests. Millions of people all over the world are now being exposed to genetically engineered foods that have not been tested sufficiently to ensure their safety. The genetically modified crop trials are just not worth doing. A number of wild flowers, earthworms and beetles in the trial fields are being compared with those in nearby fields of GM (genetically modified) crops. No monitoring is being done on the effect of soil fungi and bacteria, in spite of the concerns by leading scientists that horizontal transfer of genes will take place from genetically modified crops to soil microbes.

The effects of these crops on the surroundings are likely to be subtle and may be known after several years, yet the plan is to grow these crops for one year on a particular site than monitor these for three years.

A report of the John Innes Centre of Norwich (UK) shows that cross-pollination of genetically modified crops with non-genetically modified crops is inevitable.

However, there has to be some profit for farmers in growing these crops. Not really! Genetically modified or bio-engineered crops are expensive to develop and biotechnology companies charge a premium for the seeds and also profit from selling herbicides to which the crops are resistant. In studies, yields of genetically modified crops have been found to be 12 to 20 per cent lower than the non-genetically modified varieties. Farmers of many countries have rejected genetically modified crops. According to the National Farmers Union of Scotland, growing these crops is “commercial suicide”. The government seems to be the only group backing these crops, but it is easy for the ministers. It is the taxpayer’s money that they are wasting.

Good governance, democracy and consumer choice is the most potent precaution against such exploitation by biotechnology firms. When a tiny subset of society imposes biotechnology upon everyone else and the common environment, the results are like what we have seen in cashew plantations in the Kasargod district of Kerala where, due to the spraying of a pesticide called endosulfan on the crop, people are suffering from various mental impairments and the number of deaths due to cancer is alarmingly high.

Human genes have been transplanted in animals to produce transgenic sheep and farmers say that these animals don’t look like sheep at all. If we are going to mix species just because it is technically possible or because there seems to be profit in it, where is it going to end?

India practises conventional as well as modern biotechnology. The present consumption market is reasonably large and so is the threat. The share of modern biotechnology products shall rise, which is making India take steps to rationalise it policies in conformity with the provisions of the World Trade Organisation.

The government believes that there are several advantages in setting up of modern biotechnology industries in India as the country has core competencies in some areas, but it should not ignore the threats. Developing a modern biotechnology product from scratch and testing its effectiveness and safety within the framework of law in any country, including India, is time consuming and expensive. We should take a risk if the result is worth it.


Asia’s useful trees and plants
K. L. Noatay

Tun, or the red cedar, is a large-sized deciduous tree. Its scientific name is cederla toona. Some botanists tend to mix the main species with other sister, but less common species like cederla serata or cederla microcarpa. The family is meliaceae.

Tun has a clean bole and a spreading crown — at times hemispherical like an umbrella. Its bark is thin grey. It is smooth up to middle age of the plant but rough thereafter when the tree tends to mature.

Though tun starts showing its existence from Myanmar itself in the East, it is found growing throughout the Indian subcontinent, rather whole of Asia, especially is slightly elevated terrain of the Tarai the Shivaliks and the outer Himalays from 400m to 1500 m or so above mean sea level. It is not uncommon in the Deccan platue as well and can be seen from Sri Lanka upwards in the Indian peninsula, especially tea gardens and roadside revenues.

In its natural habitat tun is found growing in mixed stands comprising other broad-level species like terminalias, albizzias, bombax, ficuses, shisham, acacias, etc. At times it can be seen growing even in chir pine forest, especially low-lying gaps.

The trunk of tun tree is generally straight and cylindrical. The branching starts at a height of 4 to 6 m above ground level. Growth-wise tun is quite a fast growing species. In a favourable location comprising sandy loam soil with good moisture, it can mature in about 70 to 80 years by when its height is about 15 to 20 m and diameter is about 50 to 80 cm. The tun wood shows annual rings to growth, which feature gives a charming grain to it.

The leaves of tun are paripinnale compound, nearly 30 to 50 cm long, having 8 to 30 leaflets. The leaflets are generally opposite, 5 to 15 cm long, 2 to 6 cm wide and lanceolate in shape. These are glabrous above and pubescent below. Young shoots are dark red which soon change to bright green shade.

The tun leaves start falling during November-December and reappear in early spring i.e. February-March. In fact the tree is seldom leafless and can be easily mistaken for an evergreen plant.

Tun bears small but beautiful white flowers arrangement in lax panicles. These start appearing in February-March.

The fruit of tun is a five-valved capsule about 2 to 3 cm long. Arranged in pendulous clusters, these ripen in May-June. The seeds are tiny and winged. These are disseminated far and wide through wind and water action whereby germination and growth of new plants is easy. The tree tends to regenerate profusely in it natural habitat. Nevertheless it can be propagated artificially too. For the purpose the ripe fruit is collected from the tree by hand picking during May-June. The seed so collected is sown in prepared beds directly at the spot where new regeneration/plants are required to be raised. The sowing is also done in nursery beds for raising seedlings for special planting work, especially in the avenues of roads and of canals. The right season for planting seedlings is when these are in leafless state i.e. during December-January. However, the process carried out during monsoons too gives fairly good survival percentage.

The wood of tun is light, yet fairly strong. It is scented and not eaten by whites ants. The heartwood weights about 18 to 20 kg per cubic foot. It is red in colour. That is the reason the tree is sometimes called red cedar. The wood is pretty good for joinery and other carpentry work. In fact, it is highly valued for making cabinets, musical instruments, quality furniture of all kinds, door panels, decorative carving work, tea boxes, cigar boxes. etc. That also is the reason that tun wood is seldom available in good quantity. Its going price these days is around Rs 1500 per cubic foot.

In addition to yielding quality timber, tun has some other important uses as well. The foliage serves as a fodder for cattle at times when it is scarce in the area. The flowers make a good yellow dye (gulnari). The bark is an astringent. It gives resinous gum, which is used as a febrifuge.

Keeping in view the beauty tun lends to the landscape, the excellent and valuable timber that it yields, the shade it provides and the moderation it gives to the environment, it is desirable that the people having access to vacant land should plant as many of tun saplings as possible.


Farm operations for September


After the rainy season is over the winter season annuals seeds may be sown in the raised nursery beds. Small-sized or seeds of some special varieties can also be sown in the big earthen pots or trays. The water should be sprinkled immediately after sowing the seed and thereafter in the mornings or in the evenings. Protect the seeds from ants, etc. Seeds of sweet pea after soaking in the water overnight may be sown directly into the beds.

Permanent plants:
— Unwanted growth of ornamental shrubs and climbers, etc. may be trimmed out, plants may be staked or tied in position according to the effect/shape required. If some young growing plants look weak, apply well rotten FYM.

Sprouted/developed cuttings of bougainvillea and other shrubs, which were planted in the last week of February, must be ready now for lifting from the nursery beds to plant the same in polythene bags or in earthen pots for their further growth and development. This is the time for air layering of some ornamental plants which cannot be easily propagated through cuttings e.g. rubber plants and varieties of bougainvillea etc.

The lawns must have gained good growth during the rainy season. Adjust the lawn mower knives in such a way that the lawn is mowed as close to the ground as possible where the lawn growth is not up to mark, apply 500 gm of urea per 1000 sq. ft.

Do not allow the rainwater to stand in the chrysanthemum pots for a long period, tilt the pots to drain out the excess water. Keep training the plants. Use Bavistin fungicide to control fungal diseases and monocrotophos insecticide spray against the attack of insect.

In the second half of the month, the water should be withheld to prepare the rose plants for pruning next month. Planting of new rose plants can also be started in the next month.

Bulbous plants:
Well-developed bulbs of gladiolus, nacrissus (Nargis), freezia, etc. can be planted now. The soil should be well drained and rich in organic matter. Double dahlia plants can be developed both from the terminal cuttings as well as from the bulbs.

— Progressive Farming PAU