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[HYDERABAD] Scientists have urged South Asian nations to cooperate to boost their economies by tapping growing global demand for agricultural products such as herbal medicines that are derived from biological resources and traditional knowledge.

The initial call came from Swiss Nobel laureate Richard Ernst, who suggested a South Asian Union, modelled on the European Union. It would promote peaceful interaction and scientific cooperation between member countries, while maintaining the region's distinct cultural and economic identity.

Ernst, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize for chemistry, suggested the move yesterday (4 January) at the Indian Science Congress in Hyderabad.

Later at the congress, a panel discussion on global science and rural development in South Asia highlighted the need for the region's countries to jointly address development problems using science.

More than a billion people in South Asia earn less than US$1 a day, are malnourished and have no access to safe water, basic sanitation, shelter and literacy.

Using technology to transform agriculture and create jobs is the key to progress, stressed both M. E. Tusneem, chair of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, and Mangala Rai, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

They pointed to the need for increased agricultural research and more partnerships, both between South Asian nations and between them and international agricultural research councils, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Tusneem told SciDev.Net that despite scope for scientific collaboration under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), progress on agricultural and rural development has been too slow.

Nations could collaborate on disease and pest resistance; drought and salt tolerance; gene banks; improved seed production; post-harvest management; and efficient water use.

SAARC countries would perform well in the key sectors of biotechnology and herbal medicines, suggested Palpu Pushpangadan, director of India's National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow.

"Biodiversity and traditional knowledge are two of the region's capital assets", he said. "We have tapped only a fraction of our vast library of genes and traditional knowledge."

The region has a great variety of ornamental, medicinal, aromatic, as well as gum, resin and dye-yielding plants.

Pushpangadan said there was renewed global interest in natural products, especially herbal medicines.

He said there was a need to improve processing capacity to add value to economically important plants at the farm level and get the finished products to global markets.

"We [South Asia] have entered the 21st century with both the bullock cart and jet. We now need to build the correct bridges and links to advance," he observed.