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Indian agriculture can do without quick techno-fixes

Kavitha Kuruganti, Feb 27, 2013: 0:15 IST
Shanthu Shantharam’s piece on February 13, 2013 in this paper had a screaming headline that said, “Ban on GM crops will imperil Indian agriculture”.

He was referring to the recommendations of a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court to advise it on issues related to GMOs, bio-safety assessment regime in India, open air field trials, and alleges that they were “influenced by the anti-GM propaganda”. In the first instance, the TEC did not call for a ban on all GM crops or their trials.

It was ridiculous to accuse a group of scientists, nominated both by petitioners of a PIL in the SC and the Government of India as being influenced by anti-GM propaganda – obviously, the Government of India reposed its faith in these scientists when they were named and nominated (one of the two members nominated by the government in fact was coopted into the Sopory Committee inquiry into desi Bt cotton scam, for his expertise, reflecting once again on his credibility as an independent scientist). In fact, the new nominee to the committee, Dr R S Paroda, has been associated with Monsanto in its Biotech Advisory Council in the past; may be Shantharam would be happy to claim that Dr Paroda is the most scientific of all the members of the TEC.

What is interesting to note is that most independent scientists and scientists who work on aspects related to safety assessment have reservations on transgenics and often, the very need of GMOs in the field of food and farming.

However, the ones who have mastered the art of tinkering with genes and creation of GMOs are fully in favour. The latter may even be called as technicians (with due respect to them), while the former in fact are true scientists because figuring out if a gene is performing after integration into a new organism is easy enough, but finding out what else has changed in a complex regulatory web (at the molecular level as well as up to the external ecosystem level) is a challenging task which requires fine scientific brains.
Shantharam is quite wrong in lumping activists on one side and the ‘scientific community’ on the other side, claiming that the scientific community that ushered in green revolution ‘successfully’ has a different take on the matter.

What he is missing out in the old strategy of trying to showcase activists as ‘anti-science’ or ‘unscientific’ on one side, and the scientists on the other side, is that hundreds of scientists across the country, representing different streams of expertise, are actually coming out into the open to ask for ‘good science’ or ‘true science’ to emerge in the case of modern biotech. They are advocating caution with regard to transgenics and are citing much scientific evidence to prove their point. It’s time that the proponents give up their fig leaf arguments around activists and actually engage in an informed debate.

Repeated claims

The repeated claims that modern biotechnology is a ‘million times’ more refined does not behoove of true scientists. There are many studies that show that genetic engineering is imprecise and does induce instability in a genome. The proponents are repeatedly refusing to use latest science around proteomics, transcriptomics etc., to take up risk assessment.

Coming back to the TEC recommendations, Shantharam is willfully choosing to misrepresent the recommendations. The TEC did not recommend a ‘ban’ on field testing. They have made recommendations on how, when and where open air field trials can happen, while asking for a moratorium on two particular kinds of GMOs (Bt food crops for ten years and HT crops until an independent assessment on their impact and suitability). The ban was recommended on those crops for which India is the Centre of Origin and Diversity, which is a perfectly scientific recommendation.

In fact, the government should have pro-actively put in a policy directive on this itself, rather than wait for a TEC to come along and say this. It is worth noting that China, which is the Centre of Origin and Diversity for Soybean, which is also the largest consumer of soy, has not opted for GM soy, even though GM soy is the largest cultivated GM crop around the world.

Shantharam claims that almost 30 countries which have opted for GM crops have been eating GM foods without a shred of scientifically verifiable harm. He is not correct in announcing this – it is only a few countries which have gone in for GM food crops; in any case, most of the corn and soybean is also going into industrial, bio-fuel and feed uses. More importantly, in a country like the USA which does have GM food crops which are being consumed by American citizens to some extent as processed ingredients in their foods, can Shantharam and others show sound scientific evidence that the increasing illnesses in USA (be it of allergies or gastro-intestinal disorders and the like) are not connected to consumption of GM foods?

If one is truly concerned about Indian agriculture and doesn’t want to imperil it, the first requirement might be that we acknowledge the complexity of issues and not look at quick techno-fixes. There is no dearth of technologies out there (as acknowledged by the Planning Commission in its Plan documents too) –we need to think about recasting our extension systems, spread agro-ecological innovations that bring down costs for farmers, remove toxins from our environment and improve net incomes. We need to ensure remunerative prices. This is not just about agriculture, but about not imperiling our farmers too.

(The writer is one of the national conveners of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic
Agriculture)

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