The advances made using biotechnology tools to create genetically engineered products are appreciated and accepted by the people in medicine, pharmaceuticals or industrial applications. But, the same ‘Recombinant DNA’ technology silently absorbed in the welfare of human life, unfortunately has a stigma when proposed to use in agriculture products, the GM crops and food. Human insulin produced by GMO is welcomed but not the cooked Golden rice.
Nobody disputes the role of science and technology in the first green revolution which not only provided total food security to the nation for the last 45 years, but also instil the requisite confidence in our ability to produce food for all. A similar scientific approach in case of Bt cotton technology created a ‘turnaround story’ in cotton production. Bt cotton performed exceedingly well, changing the cotton scenario to the advantage of farmers and the nation as well. The country’s cotton yield nearly doubled resulting in stopping the import and increasing export. Pesticide consumption also reduced by half and the nation is recognised internationally as a power in the cotton sector after introduction of this technology.
Nevertheless vehement and persistent activism tried to suppress the benefits of the technology by using false propaganda. Despite these efforts of activists 7 million small cotton farmers are using this technology on 11.2 million hectares out of a total of 12.2 million hectares in India and it is the 14th year of cultivation. Unfortunately, the negative perceptions and myths generated by activists has been successful in stalling the commercialisation of Bt brinjal in India but not in neighbouring Bangladesh. The debates and caveats caused immense damage to R&D in this technology. Research pace in both public and private sectors has slowed down and there appears to be no ray of hope in the near future for farmers to use these products. Even field research is banned by a few state governments.
The regulatory process is also slackened by lack of enthusiasm as scientists themselves are reluctant to come out in the open against the aggressive stand of the activists who automatically mellows down the bureaucracy, ministers and product developers. Unfortunately the farmers and general public are not aware of the causes and forces behind this and thus are sometimes carried away by the activists’ propaganda.
Time is running out for the Government of India (GOI) to set its agenda on this technology. Scientists are eagerly waiting for the government to put in place the pro-science policy announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai. Here are some immediate steps for the government to consider to ease the GM crop tangle.
1. The history is full of unauthorised cultivation of GM crops in many countries, where there are only debates and dialogues without any action. Take our own example. Bt cotton was commercially cultivated by farmers in Gujarat two years prior to the permission granted by Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) for the same. Once it was officially released in North India in 2004, the same got smuggled across the border in Pakistan. The area under Bt cotton in Pakistan was around 85,000 hectares prior to its official notification. Same thing has happened in China with Cry1 Ac gene and Mon 531 Event of Monsanto before release of Chinese fusion gene. The National Technical Biosafety Commission (CTN Bio) of Brazil approved the transgenic soya in 1998 after rampant use by farmers of the smuggled GM seeds ofsoya from Argentina. This story was repeated in Paraguay also. The cases are numerous and therefore responsible regulation should promote swift action. Where farmers are informed and politically influential, it is impossible to prevent them from accessing the new technologies from anywhere in the world. Can India prevent the flow of Bt brinjal seeds from across the border in Bangladesh where it is available freely? If that happens have we not deprived our two public institutions, Indian Vegetable Research Institute (IVRI) and University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS Dharwad) and the first Indian seed company, MAHYCO, who pioneered the product, from due recognition. In fact they should be complimented for following the GOI order of moratorium and not allowing spill over of a single seed in their custody since 2010. The wisdom lies in permitting our own varieties which have been duly tested over a period of 7 years and approved by the apex body, GEAC. This should be the first and foremost agenda for the Government and MOEF & CC. This will bring back the confidence of scientists and raise their moral to do internationally competitive research in this field.
2. There is negative perception in the minds of public that Bt alone is GM technology as in India there are no other GM products in field permitted since 2002. To diversify from this, second step should be to expedite the conversion, testing and regulation of Golden rice, the technology is free for public institutions. No more time should be lost in saving millions of poor children from blindness and Vitamin A related disorders in this country. Given the necessary signal our scientists are ready to bring the elite Indian cultivars of rice under the Vitamin A bio fortification within a year.
3. The NDA government at the Centre began proceeding on the GM issue on a positive note by granting permission for field trials of number for events of different traits and crops. Realising that the Confined Field Trials (CFT) is a major step in research in any agronomic experiment wherein the lab products are allowed to go to field to test their suitability for commercial growing. However, the detrimental clause of the NOC that the previous UPA government evoked has not been removed by the current government. The NOC’s are being used politically by states to deny permission for CFT’s, practically reducing the GOI permission to merely a paper. In summary, the MoEF & CC and the GEAC take one step forward and two steps backward. They should clearly exercise the powers vested in them with regards to introduction of new technologies and direct the state governments to allow the trials as stated by them before PSCA that MoEF & CC is not bound to take states into account for permission of open field trials. The best example that other states can follow in present scenario is from Maharashtra where a separate technical committee looks into the issue of NOC’s. The committee has framed guidelines to conduct CFTs. Seeds for several trials have already been planted in Maharashtra.
4. Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the State Agricultural Universities together are called NARS. Unfortunately they have never played a pro-active role either in framing guidelines for testing or involvement in the entire process of GM approval. NARS should prepare a policy about what crops and traits are needed in India. As per Indian GMO Research Information System (IGMORIS) at least 70 crops are subjected to GM research in India. The need for GM in all these cases is debatable. Also priority needs to be accorded to traits that can solve the intractable problems in crops like drought and salinity tolerance, viral diseases, nutrient saving GM technologies, heavy pesticide consuming pests and so on. NARS certainly need to be proactive and should be on board on all issues concerning GM crops.
5. The current regulatory regimes in different countries are similar and scientifically sound notwithstanding the drum beating against it made by activists. The government should ensure that till the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) gets in place, the current system should function without external pressure. Once BRAI is established then the government can simultaneously establish independent institutions and centres of excellence in public domain for conducting stringent biosafety and environment safety tests as well as the human health parameters. This will enhance the credibility of the system.
6. The government needs to strengthen public sector research in biotechnology to do away with the monopoly of private companies, particularly the multinationals, and their supposedly over exploitation. Over Rs 20,000 million are being spent annually on research in biotechnology through schemes of DBT, ICAR, Ministry of Science and Technology and many others departments and organisations in the government besides several private research organisations. But, it is distributed to hundreds of small projects without a clear goal of achieving the target. What is expected is vertical investment in a few deserving programmes in some deserving institutions so that our national GM products will flow. Current mode of getting a project, be happy to do research, publish a paper and do away with it is something of no practical use. This PPP mode (Project research, Publish and Perish) adopted by scientists in the public institutions is further cemented by the policy paralysis on the GM crops. A country where nearly 200 million people live below poverty line and the farmers are committing suicide, research in agriculture is no fancy or luxury and needs to be accounted for the welfare of the society.
It is extremely useful and appropriate to research on the indigenous technologies which have been neglected over the years due to dominance of western mode of science research. But that does not mean to turn our backs to the emerging new technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, nuclear science, information technology, GIS and many others. Maybe they will give us clue of our historical achievements. It should not happen that we are left behind in science research and then it is too late.
A sound policy on the subject is urgently required. Activists who claimed to be not against lab research but also not in favour of field research, must understand that agriculture research in never complete unless it is tested on field. It is of no use if farmers cannot use it. They also say that they do not mind Bt brinjal coming from outside illegally but do not allow our versions with official permission. Are these the policy pillars? Therefore a policy document is necessary first. Government has a task of clearing the mess created by the Writ Petition in the Supreme Court. The previous government appointed a Technical Expert Committee with known anti-GM scientists and without a proper representation from agricultural scientific community. Government also must revisit the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) report prepared by the earlier regime. The PSC has not considered any scientific arguments made before it as if the conclusions were drawn much before discussions. The scientific community of this country shall be encouraged if allowed to do ‘Make in India’ in this field and develop new products for the benefit of Indian farmers.