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Scientists, please raise your voice for GM crops

Indian agriculture, which recorded handsome growth in the three decades beginning 1967 has,  in recent times, been through a stagnant phase. There is urgent need to attempt quantum jumps in agriculture production. This will be greatly aided by focusing on GM technology. With the share of agriculture in GDP being just around 15 per cent, its contribution to economic growth has been a small fraction. Even when the economy grew at nine per cent, the contribution of agriculture to economic growth was less than 0.5 per cent. With large sections of the population still dependant on agriculture, this poor growth impacts on standards of living of large sections of the population.

IE has been voicing concern over the blind opposition to experimenting with GM Crops.

We strongly believe the scientific community should take a lead in demanding experimentation with GM seeds.  IE had urged the government as also the scientific community to take a positive stand to permit scientific pursuits along with field trials of genetically modified seeds (see IE October 2013 issue).

Nobel laureate Dr Richard J Roberts, in his recent address at Allahabad, made a forceful case for a positive approach to this vital area. He drew attention to a project to produce a GM rice variety for tackling the problem of Vitamin A deficiency in India. “The green parties are playing politics... About one and half to two million children are affected by Vitamin A deficiency. If I can get support from a philanthropist, I will file a case in the International Court of Justice,” said Dr Roberts.

Another Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan has come down even more heavily on those opposed to GM crops: “India has to feed a large number of people. We, no doubt, need to be careful and have proper controls and effective regulations... One should not ignore the tremendous potential on offer such as developing drought- resistant varieties and crops with more nutrients and greater shelf life.” (The Hindu dated 17 December 2013). The Nobel laureate also rejected the argument of activists that GM crops are promoted by MNCs and must, therefore, be opposed in the interest of the sovereignty of developing countries. Dr Ramakrishnan said: “if needed, India and other countries can set up their own national agencies for institutions to ensure that genetic modification could be pursued independent of the MNCs; but we can’t ignore the great potential of

GM crops.”

Yet another Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse has been even more forceful and described the whole debate against genetically modified crops as ‘anti-Science’ : “what we need is political leadership and we don’t want cowardly politicians who simply are thinking what the easy course is…We need some politicians of principle and courage to actually explain what the evidence is and why they should focus on testing crops to see whether it is safe… It is irresponsible for our political leaders not to have a proper debate over it.” He suggested that the whole debate was by people who had never been hungry to ‘make people hungry elsewhere in the world.’

Leading universities in the United States have been doing a lot of research on this vital area. We came across one such at Purdue University designed to improve the pulp content and shelf life of tomatoes. Even marginal improvements in these areas can result in millions of dollars of benefit.  

Quite disappointingly, the voice of the Indian scientific community has not been heard. We strongly believe scientific pursuits should not be a victim of lobbyists and half-baked, ill-informed politicians.

Look at the succession of ministers at the helm at the Union Environment Ministry - T R Baalu, A Raja, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan. Of these, three had no clue on the role of science or in administering this vital portfolio, routinely handed to a junior partner of the coalition. The then Union Minister, Jairam Ramesh, a graduate from IIT with exposure to global and national issues, announced initially in 2009 the decision of the government to pursue further research on GM brinjal. Sadly, the vociferous opposition of lobbyists forced the government to back track. In a by now familiar practice, the issue was referred to a committee and allowed to hibernate. Ramesh, unfortunately, did not bother to pursue this and caused a huge damage to this no-go approach. Sadly, his successor Jayanthi Natarajan is known largely for her vociferous high school debates and not much for the intellectual pursuits demanded by such technology subjects and did even worse. By the time she resigned, along with Ramesh she had contributed massively to the paralysis in administration.

IE has addressed leading scientists, including Dr R Chidambaram, Dr K Kasturirangan, Dr R A Mashelkar, Dr G Padmanabhan, Dr K V Raghavan, Dr T Ramasami, Bharat Ratna Dr C N R Rao, Dr M S Swaminathan, Dr G Thyagarajan... urging them to lend their voice to this issue. We have suggested their including this as part of the agenda for the forthcoming Indian Science Congress. The Prime Minister, who inaugurates the Congress, we hope, will set the ball in motion for in-depth discussion by the scientific community. With focus, food production can double to 500 million tonnes and India can emerge a strong food bowl of the world accounting for food exports of over $ 100 billion a year.

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TOP BRAINS AND THEIR VIEWS


Dr C Rangarajan, Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to  the PM
I think that GM is the way forward but I think it would be most appropriate if scientists come together and make a statement. Perhaps, a special meeting of scientists particularly botanists and biologists can clear the air.

 


Dr M S Swaminathan, Renowned Scientist
With natural endowments for agriculture shrinking, genetically modified crops are considered the way forward. For a country suffering from poor agriculture growth, GM crops would be a solution to enhance productivity. I believe that the current concerns of bio safety and the impact of GM on biodiversity will soon give way to an appreciation of the potential benefits of this new genetics to humankind. Agricultural science and genetics together have fed the world and will continue to feed the world.

 

Dr K Kasturirangan,  Member (Science), Planning Commission
This issue requires several like-minded scientists to ensure India’s pre-eminent position in this field of research which is on the threshold of being translated into tangible outcomes like in the case of brinjal, wheat, rice, mustard, potato, tomato... The entire strategy is to quickly put together systems and coordinated activities that could respond to the present concerns in the public mind. Our concerns are more related to the techniques of GMO which are several years old. I would certainly support any initiative that can put this entire effort on a sound scientific footing... We need to address, creating independent infrastructure for a variety of test and evaluation requirements for GMOs.

 


Professor G Padmanaban, INSA Senior Scientist and former Director, Indian Institute of Science
The people involved have taken up the case rather belatedly, hiring appropriate lawyers to argue in the Supreme Court. There has also been mobilisation of international scientists to send petition to the Supreme Court. Of course, this will still not match the fantastic organised opposition by the activists with huge fund support from Europe (Green Peace). Press, which used to be negative, has been positive in recent times.

 

M D Nair, Consultant to pharmaceutical industry
We are making a very serious mistake not endorsing validated GM crops. The major food crop producers in the world have all accepted this technology and the products there from are freely traded and are available in the international markets. Senior scientists and opinion leaders in India have not taken a firm and unambiguous stand on this issue. In fact, some of them have even misrepresented the issue to the public and have done considerable damage to a worthwhile cause. 

 


K K Narayanan, Managing Director, Metahelix Life Sciences Ltd
While I agree  that there is no effective  counter to the false and misleading propaganda against GM crops, putting the blame on scientists is not entirely fair.  A sig nificant section of the media seems to be biased against stories that show such technologies in a positive light; probably they are not as ‘sensational’ as the ones emanating from the other side! 

 

Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General, Confederation of Indian Industry
There is an urgent need to advocate the merit of science-based interventions in agriculture and convince the government and policymakers that it is in the interest of the nation to take forward this debate and not be led by populist and emotional sentiments. The CII National Council on Agriculture plans to take this agenda among others that impact the food security of the nation and welfare of the farmers at large.

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