'Ban on GM crops will imperil Indian agriculture'

Last Updated : 13 February 2013, 18:24 IST
Last Updated : 13 February 2013, 18:24 IST

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India has become a flashpoint for the use of modern biotechnology in agriculture in the world.

Dogged activism by groups and organisations that strongly believe that this technology is not only unsafe, but also maintain that it is inappropriate for an agrarian economy.As much as activists have their own world view to shape India’s agriculture, the scientific community of the country that ushered the most successful green revolution in the sixties by turning the country from a “basket case” into a ‘bread basket”, have a different take on what ails Indian agriculture today, and ways and means to face new challenges to the productivity of Indian agriculture in the coming decades in the light of climate change (global warming).

More advanced science and technology are the real need of the hour and not less.  In the 10,000 years of agricultural history, there were only two real scientific interventions: first is the green revolution in the sixties based on classical Mendelian genetics, and the second is the modern biotechnology based on gene splicing technology since the 80s. The gene splicing technology is based on the revolutionary advancements in modern biology that has provided the best possible insight into how living organisms are designed and function. Far from the ‘black box’ approach of the classical plant breeding of the Mendelian era, modern biotechnology is million times more refined than conventional breeding technologies.

The power of the modern gene transfer technology lies in its abilities to directly and precisely move genes coding for desirable traits between totally unrelated organisms and express them in a regulated manner. By doing so, any sort of biological barrier can be breached, which is severe limitation in conventional breeding. This modern gene transfer technology opens up limitless possibilities of developing all sorts of desirable living organisms to counter the most egregious challenges to agricultural productivity.

Aside from many issues and controversies that surround GM crops/foods, the one that is creating furore in the world is a new research report published by Eric Gilles Seralini, a professor in France’s Caen University in a scientific journal called Chemical and Food Toxicology which showed that when particular pedigree of laboratory rats were fed with a particular variety of GM corn for two long years it resulted in ghastly cancerous tumors. Photographs of those cancerous rats can scare anyone.

As expected, the activists jumped on the result and are using it to demand a ban on GM foods.  The real world of science was equally aghast at the offending scientific paper, and got down to reviewing it critically. Hundreds of critical scientific evaluations demanded the retraction of the paper by the journal on reasons based on its inherent scientific flaws. The first egregious error in the paper was the use of a particular pedigree of lab rats that are genetically pre-disposed to developing cancers in about 20 to 22 months of its life span; secondly, the statistical treatment of the entire experiment was flawed rendering the conclusions invalid.

Offending paper

Hundreds of scientists from around the world are still demanding retraction of the offending paper by the journal and waiting a final resolution in the matter. Seralini’s research is mainly funded by the anti-GM lobby through a non-governmental organisation set up by him raising a serious conflict of interest. Meanwhile, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), German Risk Assessment Agency, New Zealand’s biotech regulatory authority and other scientific bodies have reviewed Seralini’s paper and rejected it. The latest country to revoke the ban on GM corn in question is Russia whose scientists rejected the flawed paper. Seralini tried discrediting the food safety review of EFSA on another GM corn a couple of years ago, and his analysis was found to be flawed in statistical analysis and rejected by the scientific and regulatory communities.

A joint parliamentary committee and a Supreme Court of India appointed Technical Experts Committee (TEC) have issued damning reports on GM crops heavily influenced by the anti-GM propaganda in the country, including the offending Seralini’s papers. TEC has recommended a ban on even the field testing of hundreds of GM crops that are under development in both private and public sector laboratories for more than a decade. This proposed ban will set the clock backwards on India’s agriculture by decades. Fortunately, the Indian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the Department of Biotechnology, and the industry have decided to implead in the Supreme Court case, and hope wisdom prevails upon the court to make a decision based on best possible scientific advice in the country for the good of Indian agriculture.

Leading scientific academies and regulatory bodies of the world from the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, South-Africa, Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and the UK have fully endorsed the safety and utility of the science and technology of GM crops. Indian academy of science have issued two reports in the last decade fully endorsing the GM crops technology. International bodies like UN-FAO and UN-WHO and their CODEX Alimentarius have fully certified GM foods as safe. Almost 30 countries in  the world are growing GM crops for the past two decades, and millions of people and hordes farm animals are consuming GM foods without a shred scientifically verifiable harm. If India bans GM technology due to the anti-GM propaganda, it will seriously imperil the development of Indian agriculture.

(The writer is a professor at BIGMAP, Iowa state university)

Published 13 February 2013, 18:24 IST

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