Swaminathan asked to take 'rational' view on GM crops

K Vijayraghvan

India's Principal Scientific Adviser K Vijayraghavan has asked the father of the Green Revolution M S Swaminathan to take a “careful and rational view” on the controversial genetic modification technology, because any misstep will have "consequences that are immense, sometimes very damaging and lasting.”

“In a large country like ours, the damage can be vast and deep,” Vijayraghavan wrote in an email responding to a scientific article that Swaminathan co-authored with his colleague P C Kesavan, in which the duo argued that the Bt (of Bt cotton fame) and herbicide-tolerant-crops were highly unsustainable and caused environmental harm.

Vijayraghavan, a distinguished biologist and a former Secretary to the Department of Biotechnology said he had very serious concerns about the review article that appeared in the November 25 issue of the journal Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru.

“In the section on GM, sadly, the review is severely flawed. The specific instances where results are selectively omitted, selectively represented or misrepresented are rife. The bulk of the scientific points made in this part of the review have been raised previously and have been scientifically discredited widely and one has to only study the literature to see this,” he wrote in his December 7 email to the nonagenarian farm scientist.

“The review puts in one bin the four components of efficacy, safety, commercial interests and regulation. And, above this, the review seamlessly flows from one type of genetic modification to another, clubbing them all together. This is not only flawed scientifically, it has the implication that those who defend the science or the regulatory system are defending specific commercial interests or loss of biodiversity,” he added.

The email exchanges between two of India's finest scientific minds come at a time a decision to allow commercial cultivation of genetically modified mustard developed by scientists at Delhi University is under the government's consideration.

On the issue of regulating genetically modified crops, Vijayraghavan said the article made extraordinary generalisations about the Indian regulatory system and charged both incompetence and collusion.

“These are very, very serious allegations against entire committees and the government,” he said.

“Critical analysis and criticism is always welcome. But, gratuitous generalisations undermine years of work and, more importantly, cause deep and lasting damage to entire areas of research and consequently to our people at large,” added the biologist who headed National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru before moving to the DBT.

The same regulatory system, Vijayraghavan pointed out in his email, monitored and regulated the GM research at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation.

On his part, Swaminathan said it was unfortunate that the article created an impression that he was opposed to the GM technology.

“What is important for our country is a clear-cut policy on biotechnology research and applications. I was the Founding Chairman of the National Biotechnology Board established in 1982 and my first task was to develop a proposal for a regulatory mechanism which will provide to the public credible information on risks and benefits,” he said.

Kesavan, the article's co-author, was a member of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee on GM crops, which in 2012 recommended a 10-year moratorium on the field trials of GM crops.

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Swaminathan asked to take 'rational' view on GM crops

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