1. Modern biologist who didn’t formally study biology: Pushpa Bhargava cited principle to oppose Bt cotton

Modern biologist who didn’t formally study biology: Pushpa Bhargava cited principle to oppose Bt cotton

I called up Pushpa Bhargava at about 6 pm on January 16, seeking an appointment. I was curious to know why he was so opposed to genetic modification of crops.

By: | Published: August 8, 2017 5:38 AM
He set up the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad.

I called up Pushpa Bhargava at about 6 pm on January 16, seeking an appointment. I was curious to know why he was so opposed to genetic modification of crops. Bhargava told me to come right away as he was going to be on dialysis the next day. He said he was one of the about two dozen kidney trouble patients in India to have dialysers at home. He was living at the other end of the city. He gave me elaborate instructions on how to reach there and handle the electronic security device at the entrance. I braved the peak Hyderabad traffic and reached his house, which is a multi-storey building named after his wife Manorama, in about two hours. Bhargava liked to speak and it was mostly about himself. He set up the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. He claimed to have coined the term “biotechnology,” in a concept note on the centre.

In an obituary, a newspaper called him a pioneer in the field of biotechnology. When I prefaced a question with “You are a biotechnologist,” he angrily retorted: “To call someone like me a biotechnologist is an insult.” He was a “modern biologist” who hadn’t “had one single formal lesson in biology. I have never learnt biology. The world knows me as a biologist.” Bhargava seemed anxious that his keen intellect was not obvious to the person facing him. Why was he opposed to Bt cotton, which is genetically engineered with a protein derived from a soil bacterium to be poisonous to bollworms? Before he answered that, he claimed patent rights on “genetic engineering.” He had coined the term, he said. He was not opposed to the insertion of transgenes. He was among “the first to say you should put foreign genes into plant and animal cells,” suffixing the statement with a slight bow of humility “if I may say so.”

And then another claim on greatness: “Our lab at CCMB was one of the first to start work on this.” But when the technology was developed by “a close friend of mine” Paul Berg, “we were very scared.” Berg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980. At the 1975 Asilomar Conference in California, where hazards and regulation of biotechnology were discussed, it was decided that toxic genes should not be put in living organisms. Bhargava cited that as a reason for opposing Bt cotton. But further into the interview, it turned out that Bhargava’s opposition had more to do with hurt vanity than fine principle.

Monsanto, the American leader in agri-biotechnology, he said, had offered Bt cotton technology to the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) set up by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi “at my suggestion.” (Bhargava obviously was offered the position of secretary, but his conditions were unacceptable to the government.) Chittaranjan R Bhatia, who was DBT secretary from 1993 to 1995, said Monsanto wanted Rs 63 crore for the technology. “I said this is ridiculous. I was the chairman of the only Indian biotechnology company, Avesthagen, set up by Villoo Morawala-Patell. I said, ‘Look, Avesthagen will do it for you for Rs 3 crore. Why spend Rs 63 crore?’” Monsanto, according to Bhargava, brought down the price to Rs 32 crore. But Bhargava believed the technology could be developed domestically for Rs 3 crore. The deal never went through.

So Bhargava was not actually opposed to putting a toxic gene in a living organism; he was opposed to somebody else doing it for what he considered a fat price. Bhargava then went on to make charges against DBT secretary Manju Sharma during whose tenure Bt cotton, developed by Mahyco Monsanto, got approval for commercial cultivation in 2002. Critics say Monsanto has profited immensely from the technology in the past 15 years. They should thank Bhargava, who, by his own admission, had stopped the country getting the technology at a fraction of the price it is paying now as royalties. That obstructive role continued. Bhargava had a role in depriving Indian farmers of Bt brinjal technology. Bangladeshi farmers are profiting from it since 2013.

Despite being frail and unable to move without a wheelchair, Bhargava was on the dais at a seminar organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) against genetically-modified mustard last September. Unlike Bt cotton, the GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11, which the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee recommended for cultivation in March, does not contain toxic genes. When asked how he could square his protest against “intolerance” in December 2015 and offer to return the Padma Bhushan with the embrace of the SJM, he said he had offered only issue-based support. At one time, he was called a “communist,” he said, because he had named his son after Mohit Sen, a communist leader.

“On the whole, I find this government is backward-looking, but if it does something good, I will be the first to say it is doing good.” Bhargava was a member of the Technical Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court to advise it on GM crops. He called for a ban on GM crop technology along with four other members. Only the sixth, RS Paroda, an agricultural scientist, dissented. Most anti-GM activists have little knowledge of the science. Their opposition can be dismissed. But Bhargava’s voice gave their uninformed shrillness the veneer of respectability. He has done much to discredit the technology and deny choice of good seed to farmers.

(Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, a pioneer of biotechnology and founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, died aged 89 in Hyderabad on August 1.)

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  1. இரா.செல்வம்
    Oct 28, 2017 at 10:06 pm
    I accidently came across this article by Mr.VF. Nauseating one. How a man can be defamed so cunningly, that too after his demise. Is it the policy of FE to keep such persons to defame itself. As most of the comments said Mr.VF must be in the pay role of seed giants, I font find any reason to dismiss that. Again the way he put up.his loyality to the seed faints and the way he wrote about PM is simply nauseating.
    1. G
      Aug 19, 2017 at 2:06 am
      How Much FAT money package did you get to Insult the legend of Indian Science...
      1. P
        Aug 19, 2017 at 12:54 am
        It is very foolish on FE to publish such article insulting the great visionary scientist. I think vivian fernades has not passed even formal education to write article on GM crop. PMB was correct to oppose the GM crops on Scientific as well as economic basis. GM crops is capitalist economy generation and profits will be for Monsanto not for farmers. Let the writer also know that insects are getting resistant to Bt cotton also.
        1. P
          Aug 19, 2017 at 12:31 am
          PM bhargava is right . GM crops has to be opposed since it is a form of business run by capitalist. capitalist economy is not correct for India. At this adage where organic crop concept is emerging success , GM crops will hamper the organic crop idea. By the way even cotton boll worm are getting resistant to Bt cotton so in this way , the company will get more profit by creating more and more new variants of crops and fooling the farmers.
          1. U
            Usha S
            Aug 9, 2017 at 11:02 am
            It is really unfortnate that media like FE publish such one sided article about a great scientist like Dr P M Bhargava , that too after his death . In fact people like us were expecting a great obituary from the media about him . He is one of the rare scientist among the scientific community who upheld integrity and honesty . And he was always socially conscious and tried to understand the implications of a technology when it is applied . That is what people expect from scientists . Actually we want more scientists like him so that we can develop based on sound science . What FE did is totally unethical .
            1. K
              Kavitha Kuruganti
              Aug 9, 2017 at 8:27 am
              I endorse what Sridhar Radhakrishnan, Bala, Shree Balaji, Narasimha Reddy and Aruna Rodrigues have written here. It is absolutely disgraceful to write a completely one-sided, opportunistic piece like this about a man of many facets after his death. It is disgraceful too, that FE published it!
              1. A
                Aruna Rodrigues
                Aug 8, 2017 at 10:02 pm
                In the normal course VF writes dreary nonsense on matters GMO. We can be sure of one thing: whether he signs Monsanto or VF the content is indistinguishable. Now he adds tastelessness in liberal measure and does a post mortem on Dr PM Bhargava to kill him twice. He doesn't understand that with every cheap swipe he raises him up to immortal heights. What a poverty-stricken man is this? I wonder that the FE publishes his articles. FE Do take care of your re tion
                1. N
                  Narasimha Reddy
                  Aug 8, 2017 at 8:30 pm
                  If the writer has met him in January, 2016, why is this being written and published now, in August, 2017, after his death? Probably because the writer is emboldened by the fact that Bhargava cannot speak for himself. How disgraceful? How can FE publish it? Does it not violate ethics? It is obvious that the writer weaves a nasty story, by being selective about his responses. How did this pass the editorial desk?
                  1. S
                    shree Balaji
                    Aug 8, 2017 at 5:57 pm
                    what a shameful piece..and silly twisted lies about a man who was so rare..just bcos he stood up against GMOs this broker paid to pen only pro GMOs and anti-farmer stuff is back to his game.. paid corporate brokers like this writer are actually anti-nationals.
                    1. B
                      Aug 8, 2017 at 4:44 pm
                      wow! how can one spout so much rubbish so consistently?
                      1. S
                        Sridhar R
                        Aug 8, 2017 at 1:04 pm
                        Oh, It's Vivian again. Does FE still have him in their payrolls or does he get paid by the Agri seed MNCs to attack anybody questioning or critiquing their technology. I wish VF a great obituary when his time comes, a nastier and more obnoxious one than what he wrote to India's most nationalist and public interest of scientists. VF obviously does not like him, as he is paid not to like him, I suppose, to the extent that he goes after him to his grave to attack and villify him. But a large population here in India loves him and respects him for telling us some truths and keeping the nation safe from some terrible food disasters. Fortunate we did not repeat a US or a Canada in the name of a bio-unsafe tech. Thanks Pushpa Bhargava, and as always, peacefully, somewhere up there, with your classical dignity, smile this rat away. VF has done his final stoop, and cannot go lower. Such a stink.
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