C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education

Bangalore, India


The theme of the recent conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Atlanta, USA (May 18-21, 2009) with about 14,500 participants, was ‘Heal, Fuel, Feed the World’ where over a dozen diverse sessions were organized on biotechnology in food and agriculture, which did not leave many concerned with agricultural biotechnology wholly satisfied


The BIO annual International Conventions are the largest global event for the biotechnology industry ‘to provide insights and inspiration on the major biotech trends, technological innovations and policy issues that affect the industry’. 


Basing on the experience of the earlier BIO conferences, Henry Miller and Gregory Conko wrote in June 2004 that in the BIO conferences ‘the biopharmaceutical sector is for the most part robust, (but) biotechnology applied to agriculture, food production and environmental problems has a long row to hoe’.  The Indian situation now seems to be much worse.


Bangalore Bio (BB), an annual event since 2001, organized by the Karnataka Vision Group on Biotechnology (KVGB), the main pillar of BB, with solid patronage from the Government of Karnataka, is a poor imitation of BIO conventions.  The Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE), which in its own words a ‘collective face of Indian biotech industry’ is a powerful supporter of BB.


BIO works throughout the year to create a policy environment that enables the industry to continue to fulfill its vision of bettering the world through biotechnology innovation, while BB wakes up only to organize the annual ceremony.

BB did have some conspicuous component of agribiotech on its programme during the previous years.  There were well received Public Lectures on agribiotech which were missing from 2006 and onwards.  Even at the 2008 BB meetings there was an Agribiotech Day’ focusing on four areas, with Avesthagen, Metahelix and Indian Council of Agricultural Research as partners. 


The BB’s 2009 brochure proclaims ‘Biotechnology beyond boundaries--the promise of India’. andIndia’s biggest biotech show’.  Yet, disturbingly, agribiotech has gone out of the sights of the KVGB and is totally missing from the 2009 programme of BB as also the agribiotech partners of earlier years, chiefly Avesthagen and Metahelix (Monsanto has withdrawn from BB conferences some years ago). 


ABLE is heavily biased towards the pharma and industrial biotech sectors.  Biospectrum, a much visible biotech business magazine is also heavily skewed towards the pharmaceutical industry, but Biospectrum cannot be charged with a total neglect of agribiotech. 


The 7th Biospectrum-BLE Biotech Industry Surveylisted 282 biotech companies (Biospectrum June 2009).  There are 30 agribiotech and 53 plant biotech (whatever this means) companies.  There is only one nanobiotechnology (an area of genuine modern biotechnology) company, and stem cell research companies were not identified.  Thirty eight companies are involved in bioinformatics, an area of biotech only by extension.  Some one should explain how 53 companies that do only clinical research and trials qualify to be classified as biotech companies, unless the hiccup is in the use of the terms ‘biotech’ and ‘life sciences’, which cannot be used interchangeably.  How many of the remaining 107 companies qualify to be classified as truly biotech, meaning modern biotechnological concepts, protocols and tools?   Dr Krishna Ella said that ‘by strict definition of biotech, which is recombinant, the Indian vaccine market is only about Rs. 1,000 to 1,600 crore, including the sales of the MNCs’ (Biospectrum Juy 2008).  Obviously, the majority of the pharmaceutical and industrial sector companies operate on the basis of age old technologies but jumped on the bandwagon of biotechnology to garner publicity and benefits.  Against this, one wonders why AMUL and United Breweries find no place among biotech companies, when they are heavily into fermentation technology.


During 2008-09, of the top 10 Indian biotech companies two (Rasi Seeds and Nuziweedu Seeds) are agribiotech.  During 2007-08, vaccines contributed to about 47 per cent (Rs. 3,265 crore out of  the total biopharma revenue of Rs. 6,900 crore), while therapeutics (36 per cent) and diagnostics (17 per cent) constituted the rest of pharma market and all this is not from legitimate biotech.    In comparison the market share of agribioetch was about Rs. 1,200 crore, which is certainly considerable, though the vast majority of the agribiotech companies are sub-licensees of the gene constructs and only very few are actually involved in R & D. 


It is a serious lapse on the part of BB 2009 to ignore agribiotech, an important component of the Indian biotech enterprise. 


The agribiotech industry has not been projecting itself adequately and has to take considerable blame if it is ignored.  The All India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA) comprised of agribiotech companies is comatose and never did anything visible or effective in support of the agribiotech sector.  The handling of antitech activism by the agribiotech industry has been very sloppy.  They should have impleaded in the Supreme Court of India in the two Writ Petitions that are seeking a moratorium on GE crops India, which would have supported the Government’s efforts to oppose the petitions.  As the companies were not made a party in the WPs, they did not bother.


“Miss it! If you don’t belong to Biotech sector”, the organizers of BB 2009 said.  Agribiotech missed it.  Is it because the KVGB and ABLE, are finally convinced that agribiotech does not belong to the biotech sector?


Why did not the agribiotech companies stand up against this insult or do they see only diminishing returns from their investment in BB and kept quiet, if the decision was theirs?


This is unfortunate, at a time when the agribiotech sector is facing severe problems, which the pharma and industrial sectors do not.  This is the time for the unity of all biotech sectors in the country and not for divisive politics.  Together they can address several important issues like getting the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority on the book and standing up to the ill considered opinions being expressed by the new Minister for Environment and Forests against genetically engineered food crops such as Bt brinjal.


July 8, 2009