Influence of society on GM science-led growth

27 March 2017 | Column | By Dr CD Mayee President, South Asia Biotechnology Centre, New Delhi

science led growth science led growth

India, after independence, witnessed the science-led agricultural growth which resulted in not only self-sufficiency in practically all the agricultural produce but also achieved a respectable export of several commodities. It has been achieved by moving some useful genes in to our domestic cultivars of wheat and rice by traditional methods of cross breeding. The science of cross breeding was further refined using the techniques called heterosis breeding. In the beginning of the current century, yet another science-led revolution in cotton was achieved by using the technique of genetic engineering the Bt cotton in India.

However, every new technology was opposed by the public who normally do not cultivate the land, whether it is green revolution, hybrid technique or now biotechnology. With passage of time, the intensity of organised opposition also has grown and the biotech products like Bt brinjal, GM mustard, Bt Chickpea, golden rice are withheld for want of societal consensus which is most difficult to obtain.

There is an urgent need to increase the per unit yield of crops in a sustainable manner with the use of fewer resources due to climate change and shrinking natural resources. What the country has achieved in the past fifty years is the result of adoption of robust technologies developed by Indian scientists. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Food Security Report states that technology in general has contributed 35-40 per cent yield increases across the crops grown in Asia. It is therefore imperative that the continuum technology innovation is needed to improve the productivity in India.

During the era of green or white revolutions, the science behind the technologies was rarely questioned by public as farmers adopted the recommendations given out by extension functionaries based on scientific experimentations. In the last 20 years, however the non-farmers, mostly the elite consumers, began questioning the processes and methodologies used in science in arriving at the results.

Science of genetic engineering

The recombinant technology facilitated the insertion of chosen gene from any organism into the genome of any other organism irrespective of the degree of genetic relationship. Unique feature of genetic engineering (GE) is that a desired gene(s) once identified, isolated from any source totally unrelated to the target plant can be moved in to the target plant with ease. Just because the GE technology involves the gene transfer between unrelated organisms, safety issues were raised from the very beginning of commercialisation of these crops. Therefore, every country that develops them, GE crops and their product are stringently regulated by mandatory rules and regulations for their efficacy, biosafety, environmental safety, and socioeconomic benefits. In fact, the conventional bred cultivars do not undergo such regulations. Therefore, many biotechnologists argue that GM crops are much safer than the crops developed through conventional breeding.

Bt cotton, first and only GE crop in India

Government of India has approved commercial cultivation of three Bt cotton hybrids with Cry1 AC gene as ‘Bollgard I’, in 2002. Subsequently, the other Bt cotton events viz ‘Bollgard II’, ‘GFM–Cry1A’ ‘Event -1’, ‘BNLA 601’ and ‘Event 9124’ were also subjected to the biosafety tests, proved to be safe and approved for cultivation. As of now, less than 1,000 Bt cotton hybrids are available for cultivation. Efforts are on to develop Bt cotton varieties suitable for high density planting and mechanical harvesting in India.

In the last 15 years, adoption of Bt cotton in India touched 95 per cent. Out of 12 million ha under cotton cultivation, 11.5 million is occupied by Bt cotton and grown by 7.7 million farmers. It increased the yield from merely 13 million bales in 2002 to 39 million cotton bales. It has contributed enormously to the country’s farm economy. Brookes and Barefoot (2015) provisionally estimated that India’s farm income from Bt cotton increased by USD 18.3 billion in the period between 2002 and 2014 and USD 1.6 billion in 2014 alone. The impact and benefits from Bt cotton in India have been critically examined since its introduction and nearly 12 studies on the economic and ecological advantages of the technology are available. The technology has allowed Indian farmers to benefit from a 39 per cent reduction in pesticide use, a 31 per cent increase in yield and 88 per cent increase in profitability which is equivalent to a $250 gain per hectare.

Current Status

On this backdrop of BT cotton, it is important to examine the current status of GM crops. Many transgenic crops have been developed and are being tested by various public and private institutions. Currently, seven field crop viz, sorghum, rice, chickpea, sugarcane, castor, groundnut and mustard; four vegetables viz, brinjal, potato, tomato and watermelon and one fruit crop; papaya have already been genetically modified for various traits like, insect resistance, virus resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, fruit ripening, heterosis, fungal disease resistance etc, from 15 public sector institutions are in field trials in India.  Similarly, more than 15 private companies are field testing their GM crops viz., corn, rice, brinjal, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower and okra. India is therefore, well poised for talking a huge leap forward in GM technology.  The opposition to GM food crops is being scientifically well challenged and slowly but steadily the commercialisation of GM – food crops shall occur.

Biosafety and environmental safety regulations

In  spite of the clear benefits of GM – crops, the opposition mainly comes due to unknown risk that the new technology may bring. These concerns of biosafety have been adequately addressed in India by adopting set of internationally accepted procedures. The biosafety testing, risk assessment, evaluation and commercialisation of GM crop involve carefully drawn guidelines which are globally accepted. In India, with the evaluation of Bt Cotton, these guidelines of evaluation, field testing and commercialisation have been well prepared and developed. With new experiences gained from the advances in modern biology, the Indian Regulatory System for biosafety, environmental safety and biosecurity is updated from time to time and made available for public views.

Science communication and society

GM crops and GE technology are though merely one of the many possible scientific options to improve agricultural productivity, has triggered increased interest in its consistent and substantial benefits as also sparked debates and caveats on the perceived risks and safety. The subject evoked unprecedented controversy and resulted in delays of commercialisation of Bt brinjal, GM mustard, herbicide resistant cotton, Bt chickpea and halted even the field testing of GM products. Diverse issues like scientific, political ethical, economic, cultural and even religious viewpoints are being espoused by different stakeholders. The society earlier also refused to accept the green revolution bred wheat, hybrid sorghum, pearl millet or even microbes responsible for diseases. Crucial therefore to balancing issues and concerns surrounding the GE technology or the entire biotechnology is adequate science-based authoritative information to enable the various stakeholders to engage in an objective and transparent debate. Mutual understanding and dialogue will enable society to evaluate the beneficial attribute of GE technology and assurance by the public (ISAAA, 2015).

In India, Bt cotton growing and the way it is being accepted by farmers is an accumulated experience on the basis of which the other GM crops could have been considered. Even after many years the activists are still sceptical of the real contributions of the technology. Dr Kranthi (2012) attempted to answer all possible queries on the issue. Unfortunately, its success in shaping the public opinion and inducing Government to allow the path of other GM releases has been hampered by the large movement of scaremongers and pseudo-scientists. The activists run emotional campaigns that touches the values of society while the scientists are still employing the deficit model of engagement with public, where they provide overwhelming scientific information, facts and figures which are too abstract to the public. Another glaring contrast between critics of GE and scientists is that the work of activists is readily available on Internet while scientists’ work is published in scientific journals, conferences, seminars, workshops or in university reports (Arujanan, 2015). It is therefore necessary that a strong communication be developed to convince the society of the benefits of new sciences like biotechnology. May be scientists need to repackage the strategy of communication though more emotions and values that touches the public hearts.

The society consists of four types of public: non-public, latent public, aware public, and active public. The opposition mainly comes from active public which may be a fraction of general society but they are able to influence the public opinion in India. Farmers by and large falls in the category of either latent or non-public and the best communication can be made with them who would be able to become aware and active to change the perspective to societal acceptance.

Let us also understand that the challenges to GE crops are not merely on regulatory issues but now on the public perception, general opposition to the technology, choked product pipeline and limited public sector participation in the debate and discussions These issues need to be dissected and understand from the point of societal acceptance which is required for enabling environment for government support without which the technology shall not move further.

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