The Controversy: Inspite of all the encouragement and success, the conservation programme faced opposition from certain quarters. Several `imaginative’ stories appeared in newspapers maligning those associated with the conservation project in the KAU. Finally the KAU had to come out with a “White Paper” to clear the doubts created.
Between 1993 and 1996, 19 animals died under mysterious circumstances, which were proved to be due to malicious poisoning. KAU had a collaboration for applying the embryo transfer technology for the faster multiplication of the endangered Vechur cattle with Kerala Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (MILMA), which had an approved centre of the department of Biochemistry, Govt. of India. Even this productive collaboration was criticised by a section of the media as having ulterior motives. A Fax message from Dr. A.P.Usha, Asst. Professor, KAU, who was doing her Ph.D. in the Roslin Institute, UK, requesting details on Vechur cattle and hinting a possibility for collaboration was reproduced in some media as with aspersions about the very intention.
But their allegations caught the attention of the scientific community with Vandana Siva taking up the issue. In her article, “Challenges to Animal Protection” which appeared in the Journal of Indian Veterinary Association, Kerala (JIVA) volume 3, issue 2, April-June 1998, she stated: “The Vechur cattle, an almost extinct variety of Indian indigenous breed is the smallest cattle variety in the world. Endemic to the moist landscape of Kerala the uniqueness of this rare variety is its high fat content in milk. It needs very little feed and one kg of fodder for the day is enough for this short and stumpy draught cattle. At present its local population is not more than hundred despite the conservation efforts by the Kerala Agricultural University. The Roslin Institute of the Edinburgh University of the U.K., the creator of Dolly, the Sheep, has surreptitiously obtained the embryos of this rare Indian breed to facilitate their patentable transgenic research. The pharmaceuticals Proteins Ltd, a branch of the Roslin Institute, has got patent on cows, sheep and other mammalian bioreactors (including human) for using animals as pharmaceuticals factories to reduce chemicals in mammary glands. Now as reported, loaded with a patent on Vechur and with command over shifting genes technology called “Biotechnology”, they can turn our little Vechur into walking factories in their fields and earn billions of dollars through butter production by churning the high content of fat in its milk.”
A Malayalam daily quoted the extract with exaggeration leading to a controversy and confusion in the minds of people. Other sections of the media also got involved in the issue, some of them clearly exposing the baselessness of the issue. The article titled `A cow and a controversy’ published by R. Krishnakumar in the `Frontline’ of 9th April 1999 is an example. His interviews with Vandana Siva, Harry Griffin of Roslin Institute,UK, K.N.Syamasundaran Nair, Vice-Chancellor, KAU, P.G.Nair, former director of the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, Karnal, are very much revealing. Extracts are:
1.Dr.Shyamasundaran Nair, KAU Vice-Chancellor, told Frontline:
“Nobody can arrogate to themselves the right to patriotism. Vandana Siva should recognise the integrity of her fraternity. Patent searches conducted at the request of the university by ICAR officers and scientists at the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation have drawn a blank. Export of live cattle is encouraged in the country and cattle from Kerala might have been going out. In that respect, it is still a free-for-all situation. But the university is confident that no Vechur germplasm has gone out from its genetically upgraded stock of Vechur cattle. I will support my scientists fully on this and the Government or any other agency is free to conduct an inquiry. The university will provide all material and help to any such agency”
2.One of the KAU scientists who were recently at Roslin, Assistant Professor A.P.Usha, told Frontline that while at the Institute on a research project on Dexter cattle (another dwarf breed), she had informally discussed with some scholars there the existence of the Vechur cattle and suggested in writing to the KAU the possibility of a collaborative research with Roslin on them.
“The proposal was rejected by the then Vice-Chancellor, A.M.Michael. But when I returned, I found a big controversy had bloomed in some local newspapers that KAU scientists and a foreign firm had hatched a conspiracy for lucrative biotechnology research on Vechur cattle. The fact remains that the proposal was rejected and that was the end of it, she said.”
3.P.G.Nair, former Director of the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) in Karnal, Haryana, now based in Thrissur, described the entire controversy as
“`ridiculous’. Vechur cattle is special in that their milk production is higher-but only when compared with that of other native cattle of Kerala. However, compare its production of three to four kg a day with the 40kg to 50kg a day of an exotic breed like Holstein and its economic value becomes clear. Its supposed value owing to the high fat content in its milk is important only in the Indian context. The trend the world over is to produce animals that give low-fat milk. The suggestion that the Vechur germplasm has been smuggled out, especially because of the alpha-lactalbumin found in the Vechur cow’s milk, is absurd because this protein is found in the milk of many mammals, including humans’, he said.”
Extracts of interview with Vandana Siva:
The varying nature of allegations you have made on different occasions with respect to the Vechur cow has created confusion and may help the very people or institutions whose activities you are trying to expose. What exactly are your charges?
Just as there are cases of major biopiracy in plant genetic material there are indications and possibilities that similar biopiracy in animal genetic wealth from India could also be taking place. Since the Roslin Institute, which is linked to the leading firm in animal biotechnology, PPL Therapeutics, has major interests in unique genetic trades for genetic engineering in animals for the production of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, bioprospecting for animal genetic material is a necessary part of its activities. The cloning and patenting of `Dolly’ was part of the collaboration between PPL and Roslin for genetic engineering of animals. The research association between the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) and the Roslin Institute as well as the fact that the KAU holds the germplasm of the unique Vechur cow suggest that the potential for bioprospecting links between Roslin and the KAU needs to be explored.
On what basis did you make the allegations?
The basis of my claim that an epidemic of biopiracy is taking place is ten years of research of monitoring of biopiracy-based patents.
Prof. Graham Bulfield, Director and Chief Executive of the Roslin Institute, has in a message to the KAU denied having any knowledge about the Vechur breed of cattle. He also said that the Roslin Institute “certainly has no germplasm nor have we patented them”
Prof. Graham Bulfield’s claim that he does not know about the existence of Vechur cow is no proof of the Roslin Institute not having used genetic material from that breed. His claim that the Institute has no germplasm is false since a genetic engineering laboratory cannot work without germplasm. It is its basic raw material.
The KAU has also produced a letter from Suman Govil, Principal Scientific Officer of the Department of Biotechnology of the Govt. of India, that she has contested a patent search in British and United State’s patent data bases using the department’s InterNet patent search system for all patents listed in the database from January 1,1976 and found no patent claimed to have been taken by the Roslin Institute.
Suman Govil’s letter that the Institute has no patents is false since we have a list of 14 patents held or applied for by the Roslin Institute in Europe. One of these patent claims clearly refers to `Bos indicus’, an Indian breed.
What characteristics of the Vechur breed do you think would be so important and unavailable in other cattle/animals that Roslin or any other research institution would be interested in them for transgenic research?
The Vechur breed is the most important cattle breed for the conversion of feed to protein, which obviously makes it very significant for an industry trying to do mass production of chemicals through “animal factories” for which corporations such as PPL hold patents for “mammalian bioreactors”, that is, the use of mammary glands of animals, including humans, to produce specialised chemicals.
Some KAU scientists are of the opinion that you cleverly put on the KAU the onus to prove what they describe as your “false allegations”. There is also a feeling that you may have been tricked into making such a claim by persons in the KAU itself because of professional rivalry.
I have no connection with any scientist in the KAU. I do not make myself available for petty personal politics meant to further personal agendas. My concern about biopiracy is not related to the KAU’s internal politics; it is much larger than the issue of the KAU and the Vechur breed. Extracts of interview with Harry Griffin, Assistant Director, Roslin Institute:
What is your response to the allegations made against your Institute with regard to the Vechur patent issue?
As one headline said, mystery certainly shrouds the Vechur patent issue. The story is entirely groundless. The Roslin Institute does not have any programme for conservation of “germplasm” of rare breeds from either the UK or overseas. We have never carried out any research on Vechur cows and we have not attempted to import embryos or germplasm or patent the breed or its genome. The claim that we have erased 36 references to work on Vechur cattle from our Website is simply nonsense. We have done no such work and no reference on Vechur cows has ever been on our Website.
The Roslin Institute recently received a request for clarification from the Dean of Kerala the Agricultural University, Dr.S.Sulochana, and our Director, Dr. Graham Bulfield, faxed reply on August 7. The essence of his response was that we did not have a clue what this story was about. The Roslin Institute has received no communication from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
In subsequent reports, Ms. Vandana Siva cites a particular patent number, EP 765390. This application is entitled “Alpha-lactalbumin gene constructs” and was submitted by PPL Therapeutics, not the Roslin Institute. PPL’s application refers to the use of gene constructs for the targeting of the expression of human alpha-lactalbumin to the mammary glands of transgenic cows. The aim is to produce milk of enhanced nutritional value for premature infants. There is no connection whatsoever with any specific breed of cattle, Indian or otherwise.
Let me therefor review the evidence so far. An Indian environmentalist claims that the Roslin Institute has “stolen” the Vechur and applied for patent on it or its genome. No evidence to support this allegation is provided and indeed news reports from India refers to “charges” and “rumours” and to a senior university professor who was apparently prepared to give the report some limited credence but was not prepared to be named. A search by an Indian Government official found no evidence for any relevant patent.
Moreover, the supposed value of the Vechur cattle – the high fat content of its milk – is in fact a liability in Europe and North America where the demand is to decrease milk fat. And when challenged to provide evidence about the alleged patenting by the Roslin Institute, Ms. Vandana Siva cites a patent application submitted from an entirely different organisation that concerns the introduction of human genes in cows.
Is the Roslin Institute or any of its associated institutions involved in any way with research on Vechur cattle or, for that matter, on any other Indian breed?
Was there any formal or informal proposal from anyone in the KAU for collaborative research on Vechur cattle?
What is the procedure your institute or its associated institutions follow, in case you are interested on research on an indigenous breed of cattle like Vechur? How do you usually go about it?
We have no programme on indigenous breeds.
Given the fact that research institutions in developing countries are often ill-equipped to conduct advanced biotechnology research, how do you react to frequent complaints in India that research institutes in developed countries are patenting genes derived from indigenous Indian breeds to the detriment of Indian interests?
We would like to see the evidence that this is actually happening. We are certainly not involved.
The searches conducted by RAFI, Canada, Swaminathan Foundation, Chennai, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, scientists and environmentalists disproved the allegations raised by Vandana Siva and others. The “White Paper” released by KAU on the basis of all these has brought out the truth.
JIVA, which had published Vandana Siva’s article wrote in the next issue (Vol.4, Issue 1, January to June 1999 – page 43) “We salute the good work and dedication of the scientists behind the conservation of the rare breed. JIVA had no intention to destroy their morale or to tarnish their image and reputation. And the speech of Srimathi Vandana Siva was first published in 1997 in “Animal Citizen”, a national journal, and this was only reprinted in JIVA.
The source of information of Vandana Siva to be the Website of Roslin Institute has no proof. But the similarities in her statements to those in the “Indian Communications” are indicative of the source.
Similarities In The Statements Appeared In Indian Communicator And Those Of Vandana Siva
|(Indian communicator, 29th August 1994)||Vandana Shiva 1997 – (Challenges to animal protection, JIVA, 1998, Vol. 3(2).|
|The Vechur cattle are an almost extinct indigenous breed. This short and stumpy draught is the smallest cattle variety in the world.The Vechur cattle is also a highly endemic One in the moist landscape of Kerala and the only known Vechur cattle population in the world numbers a mere 87 which are being conserved in the Kerala Agricultural University Livestock farm in Mannuthy in an ICAR funded ex situ conservation programme
The Vechur cattle needs very little feed and upkeep and even people settled in cities can grow this cattle. Only one-kg cattle feedis enough for these short stumpy cattle per day
Veterinary genetic engineers of UK are eagerly trying to get hold of the genes of the rare Vechur cows from the Kerala Agricultural University.
The patent right of the germplasm of Vechur cows is not
|The Vechur cattle, an almost extinct variety of Indian indigenous breed is the smallest cattle variety in the worldendemic to the moist landscape breed is the smallest cattle varietyof Kerala.The uniqueness of this in the world rare variety is its high fat content in milk. At present its local population is not more than 100 despite the conservation efforts by the Kerala Agricultural University.
It needs very little feed and one kilogram of fodder for the day is enough for these short and stumpy draught cattle
The Roslyn institute of Edinburgh University of UK, the creator of Dolly the sheep has Surreptitiously obtained the embryos of this rare Indian breed to facilitate their patentable trangenic research.
Now as reported, loaded with a patent on Vechur and with command over shifting gene technology called Biotechnology they can turn our little Vechur into walking Factories in their fields and earn billions of dollars through butter production by churning the high content of fat in its milk