The fifth edition of the global Bio-business Forum, BioAsia 2008, commenced at Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) in Hyderabad on February 7.

Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari inaugurated the conference. Speaking after inaugurating the event, Mr Ansari pointed out that India was one of the first countries in the world to have focused on biotech as early as the 80s. The biotech focus was mentioned in the 6th Five-Year Plan.

The text of the address of the Vice President of India Mohd. Hamid Ansari at the inaugural session of “Bio Asia 2008” –

“I am happy to be here in this distinguished gathering of scientists, entrepreneurs, businessmen, academics and policy-makers. It is to the credit of the Government of Andhra Pradesh that this Forum that began in 2004, is now into its Fifth Conference. Bio Asia has emerged as a prestigious international conference focusing on business development of the biotechnology sector. India is one of the very few among developing countries to have recognised the importance of biotechnology as an important instrument for advancing agricultural and industrial growth. Our 6th Five Year Plan (1980-85) was the first document to cover biotechnology development in our country. It sought to strengthen our capabilities in areas such as immunology, communicable diseases and genetics. A separate Department of Biotechnology was set up as early as 1986 to give impetus to the development of this sector.

Biotechnology evokes varying perceptions among people. For some it is a set of elitist technologies with no implications for the man on the street; others see it in ethical terms, whether it is morally right or wrong to conduct certain types of research, such as stem cell research; yet others see it as a prime technological mover of an emerging industry.

Why is Biotechnology important?

First, Biotechnology is important because it lies at the intersection of two areas that are critical to our economy – Agriculture and the Knowledge Industry. The growth rate in the agriculture sector has been a mere 2.7% in the last financial year. Yet, more than half of the population directly depends on this sector. India being the second largest food producer offers a huge market for biotechnology products. Biotechnology is a key tool in improving productivity of agriculture and ensuring a higher growth rate. Such technologies must be advanced and directed towards resource-poor farmers and under-developed regions. Crop biotechnology, plant tissue culture, biological pest control and bio fertilizers are some of the promising areas where significant progress has been made. We will have to get used to an increasing role for this knowledge industry in agricultural production and ensure both its vertical and horizontal dispersion across the country.

Second, biotechnology straddles two areas that are vital for us as human beings – health and food. With a population of over one billion and significant disparities in the level of human development across regions and groups, the Indian interest in biotechnology is understandable. Producing cheaper vaccines, innovative drugs, new therapies such as those using stem cells, bio-engineering, human genetics and genome analysis have been areas of focus. In the case of food, probiotics and nutraceuticals hold immense promise.

Third, developing biotechnology is the best means to leverage the immense biodiversity of India. Our subcontinent occupies only 2.4% of the total global surface area but has 7.6% of the total mammal species, 12.6% of bird species, 11.7% of fishes and 6% of total flowering plants that are present in the world. We are also endowed with varied climatic zones and with rich human capital. The vision of the government is to “use powerful tools of biotechnology to help convert the country’s diverse biological resources to useful products and processes that are accessible to its masses for economic development and employment generation”.

Fourth, biotechnology represents the new wave of technology that could be more transformative in its impact than Information Technology. In some ways, its impact is more immediate and humane as it seeks to find solutions to the problems of human suffering and human want. Furthermore, biotechnology is more inclusive in its impact than IT, as its beneficiaries include farmers, poor persons needing public health interventions and the like.

Fifth, biotechnology brings together entrepreneurship, innovation, business and industry, state support, private and venture capital funding – an excellent example of public-private partnership. It is thus in a sweet spot that has led to significant growth – the industry grew at 40% during the last five years and the turnover during 2005-06 was over US$ 1.5 billion. It is estimated that the annual turnover by 2010 would be US$ 10 billion.

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