You Must Stand Firm On GM

You Must Stand Firm On GM

The PMO has asked NITI Aayog to draft a policy paper on agricultural biotechnology. Two renowned genetic scientists make an impassioned appeal to the Aayog’s vice-chairman Professor Arvind Panagariya.

Dear Professor Panagariya,

We are a couple of scientists who have been involved in the agricultural biotechnology issues of India for over two decades. We are strong proponents of agricultural biotechnology applications in Indian agriculture and believe that there is a strong scientific consensus that the needlessly controversial Genetically Modified (GM) crops are safe and of great utility to Indian farmers.

We have watched and participated in the endless debates on Indian GM crops, and have been frustrated by how the central government up until the NDA government took charge last year, have handled the issue in such an inept manner. The UPA government dithered for a decade without firmly coming down on the issue one way or another. The matter was made worse by the former Union Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh who imposed a permanently temporary ban on Bt brinjal five years ago.

The issue has not budged an inch since then. However, it must be said to the credit of the current Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar that he has, at the urging of the Prime Minister, made some positive moves to at least allow the field testing of GM crops to figure out how they perform under field conditions. This is a prerequisite for eventual commercialization. His famous remark “How can we stop science?” clearly sums up his attitude. Indeed, the science and technology of GM crops have made rapid strides in the last decade, and Indian farmers have been deprived of benefits of this cutting-edge technology for too long for the fear of anti-tech activism.

To be fair, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had a very positive view of modern science and especially nuclear power and biotechnology. He was bold enough to accuse urban NGOs of derailing India’s progress by agitating and even militating against these technologies. But his stubborn environment ministers, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan, could not care less, and yielded to the pressures of the environmental activists and many NGO types on the extra-constitutional National Advisory Council to stall GM crops.

Prime Minister Singh finally asked Veerappa Moily to take charge of the Ministry, and he began clearing projects that were held up for want of environment clearance. But, it was too little and too late. Hundreds of Indian scientists have been demoralized, and have abandoned their research on the subject. Thousands of Indian students have completely given up studying the subject, ensuring acute shortage of trained scientific manpower for decades to come. Many investors and private seed companies have withdrawn their investments.

To add fuel to the fire, a Standing Committee of the Parliament headed by a former Marxist MP submitted a voluminous report to ban the technology altogether. This report must be one of the most dishonest and disingenuous reports by a parliamentary committee that completely ignored mainstream science which clearly established the safety and efficacy of GM crops. Another report by a Supreme Court-appointed so-called expert’s committee also ignored the overwhelming scientific evidence and submitted a prejudiced and one-sided report asking for stoppage of field trials for more than a decade until such time India, according to them, has scientifically competent regulators.

The war cry of the anti-GM lobby is that India’s regulations are weak, and Indian regulatory scientists are incompetent. This charge comes from one of most scientifically illiterate groups of people ever, who do not understand the B of biotechnology. All these environmental activists the world over use just one strategy to kill what they don’t like, and that is misinform, disinform, obfuscate, and lie to confuse people and create chaos in which the decision makers (regulators) shy away from making right decisions.

Their aim is that technology products will be tied up in regulatory knots from here to eternity and die a slow death. This tactic will ensure that no private sector firm will come forward to develop the technology and scientists will give up in frustration. This approach has been the leitmotif of anti-tech activists throughout the world, which Indian agitationists have borrowed from the West.

Lots of people are happy that the present government has started cracking its whip on these anti-development activists who masquerade as stakeholders in nation-building. We are seeing a ray of hope in the Narendra Modi government. The Prime Minister is fully aware of the benefits of Bt cotton in Gujarat. He has seen the success of Bt cotton in the state from day one as the debut of Bt cotton coincided with his ascendency to the Chief Ministership of Gujarat in 2002.

The PM, when he recently visited a biotechnology laboratory in the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, was thrilled to see a transgenic banana that is fortified with iron and instructed his officials to follow up on it to see how the technology could be imported to India, so that the poorest of poor who can afford only to eat the cheapest fruit like banana also get health benefits. He was praising it on the floor of the Parliament in the last session.

The history of the progress of science is riddled with opposition and unreason. There has always been a minority of people who have opposed science (Luddites), but science has thrived in spite of them. Science will not be stopped, as the environment minister of India said. Opponents of science cause temporary mischief, but in today’s world, even a temporary stalling of progress can cause insurmountable misery and cause millions of dollars of loss to the economy.

The irony of the GM controversy is that the same gene-splicing technology in medicine is quietly accepted, but not in food and agriculture. There is really no rhyme or reason for this kind of dualism, but it exists and we have to fight the menace. Even today, there is a tiny minority of people in the US who make loud noises against childhood vaccination, supported by many celebrities.

Similarly, the Prince of Wales is at the forefront of opposing GM crops without understanding the science. He has not bothered to call on his country’s Royal Society to seek their advice. Professor Richard Dawkins, a brilliant scientific mind, has chided the Prince for his scientific ignorance of GM crops. The sum and substance of Dawkins’ letter to the Prince is to impress upon him that all that people eat today has been genetically modified for eons; otherwise there would not be such a bountiful harvest. If one understands this principle in a broader perspective, it will be easy to argue in favour of GM crops.

To respond to the opposition to GMOs, nations and international bodies have erected international treaties (Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety) to assure safety, and nations have built onerous regulatory systems that are adding millions of dollars to the cost of product development.

Technology is becoming needlessly expensive because of needless regulatory burdens. It is ridiculous that the opposition to GM crops is not about the nature of products but how it is made, meaning the technology itself. They want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There is really no safety question here although it is used as a ruse to challenge the utility and appropriateness of the technology. The debate has been completely politicized by them beyond repair which is their unsavoury tactic to kill all development of the technology. It should be noted that most of the objections to GM crops is by urban NGOs, but farmers would be willing to give it a try at least once before accepting or rejecting it.

Indian farmers have not been given a fair chance at all. The tragedy in India is that even testing to prove or disprove the safety of GM crops has been stopped. When someone says it is not safe, then it should be tested for its safety. But, if safety testing itself in not allowed, there will be no hope for the technology in the country. This unreasonable demand must be shunned by the government. Regulations by governments must strive to strike a balance between risks and benefits. The underpinning of any reasonable regulatory system should be based on sound scientific consensus.

We are pleased that the PMO has asked NITI Aayog to draft a policy paper on modern agricultural biotechnology and that you have earnestly started the exercise by holding consultations with all stakeholders. We are also happy that Professor Jagdish Bhagwati’s and your views on the subject of GM crops are highly progressive as articulated in your books on the Indian economy. What we want to do through this letter is to offer you the benefit of the world’s mainstream scientific view that GM crops are products of the best possible science from around the world, and they have proved themselves to be biologically safe, and without any known or significant environmental risks.

We want you to know that world’s leading scientific bodies like the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society, the German Risk Assessment Agency, the European Academy of Science, the Canadian Royal Society, the New Zealand Royal Society, and India’s seven science academies have all declared that GM crops are safe. Innumerable scientific associations and regulatory bodies have all concluded that GM crops are safe and economically beneficial, based on hundreds of independent economic assessment studies published in the best scientific publications that undergo rigorous peer review.

It is important for you to note that the counter-narrative studies that cast GM crops in a negative light by a handful of activists/scientists have been rejected by mainstream scientific and regulatory bodies. A new and nasty onslaught on modern science and scientists has been launched by scores of anti-tech activist groups, and they have established their own scientific bodies sounding like authentic scientific bodies, propagating fraudulent science published in their own online publications and real-looking scientific journals.

They have created a world of their own “parallel science” to discredit mainstream science and confuse the public and gullible governments. Occasionally, they succeed in publicizing their science in mainstream journals only to be withdrawn or cancelled by the editors for the faulty science. A notorious anti-GM scientist is the poster-boy of the anti-GM movement whose recent papers in the PLOS One science journal have been delayed for the same reasons for which his earlier publications have been rejected by editors of other journals. We urge you to reject the “scientific” publications of Gilles-Eric Seralini, and books by Jeffrey Smith who is no scientist at all but seems to have catalogued scientific publications showing the negative effects of GM crops.

Both are fraudulent scientists whose writings hold no currency in any part of the world, but you will be flooded with them by the anti-tech activists in support of their opposition to GM crops. This diabolical mischief is really going to hurt India’s agricultural development. This kind of rabid campaign against GM crops in India must be rejected, and we hope your forthcoming policy paper will accomplish just that, and put India on a technologically progressive trajectory.

It is important for you to realize that the science and art of modern biotechnology is developing at the speed of light, and India has a sound technology policy developed by the Department of Biotechnology, but the need of the hour is a sound policy principle enunciated in such a broad fashion as to accommodate future changes in technology development. What India needs is a dynamic and flexible biotechnology regulatory policy and the establishment of a regulatory authority that is truly independent and firmly based on the best possible science available.

India’s Bt cotton I and II have transformed the lives of their growers and has made India the second largest exporter of cotton within a short span of five years since their debut. It is no wonder that almost 90 per cent of cotton farmers in the country adopted Bt cotton so rapidly, in spite of the anti-tech activists trashing the demonstrated benefits.

There is a fraudulent and mischievous writ petition in the Supreme Court since 2005 against the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Ministry of Environment field testing GM crops. These activists influenced Jairam Ramesh to rule that applicants for field testing must get No Objection Certificates (NOC) when there was no such requirement in the first place. There is no room for NOC from the states, and what Jairam Ramesh promulgated was illegal. This needs to be changed.

It was easy for these activists to corrupt the minds of state-level politicians to decline an NOC and halt all field testing in the past five years. It is really unfortunate that when the present environment minister is trying to set right the matter in sound scientific spirit, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch are throwing a monkey’s wrench into the technology spokes. These two groups seem to be clueless about modern biotechnology, and their words must not be heeded in the interest of the nation’s agricultural progress.

Many scientists, policymakers and bureaucrats in concerned ministries fear the aggressive stance of the opponents of the technology. Most of the public so far were not aware of the causes, forces, and international funding behind this vicious anti-tech activism. They get carried away by the high-decibel noises made by the activists giving an impression that the public really does not want GM foods.

When the public is properly informed, its position changes positively. Activists must not be allowed to prevail with their false alarm and scaremongering.

The government must carry out an aggressive communication outreach to convey the bare facts of the science and technology of GM crops in a language that is easy to understand. The pending case in the Supreme Court must be vacated by a competent lawyer of the government by properly informing the judiciary. That case must not allowed to linger on and continue to obstruct technology development. The legal mischief of the activists must be exposed.

A pliable media that has fallen victim to disinformation and misinformation campaign must be checked.

All right-minded agricultural scientists will be pleased if NITI Aayog, under your leadership, can set the technology path in agriculture straight by providing scientifically credible policy advice to the government. This golden opportunity to bring Indian agriculture out of its stupor must be neither be missed nor delayed.

Sincerely yours

Prof Shantharam is a Visiting Professor at the Seed Science Center and the Biosafety Institute for the Genetically Modified Agricultural Products (BIGMAP), Iowa State University, Ames, and a graduate teaching faculty with the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr Shantharam has served as consultant to UN-FAO, UNIDO, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. He was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s.

Dr Rao is Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness (www.fbae.org), and a retired professor of Botany from Bangalore University. He taught botany, plant biology and biodiversity subjects, and researched medicinal plants over a span of 40 years.  He has served on specialist committees of the Departments of Biotechnology, the Botanical Survey of India and the US National Academy of Sciences.

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