Those opposing GM crops ignore scientific evidence of their harmlessness and are depriving the nation of the wider benefits of agri-biotechnology

It is unfortunate that the technical group appointed by the Supreme Court has chosen to stick with its recommendation for an indefinite moratorium on GM crop trials. There is fierce opposition from activists even to the introduction of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill (BRAI) in Parliament, meant to evolve a scientific basis for the regulatory process.

With all this negative propaganda, science has become a casualty. In our country, agricultural biotechnology has been reduced to Bt (Bacillus thuringensis toxin)-crops and further restricted to Bt cotton and Bt brinjal. Transgenic (or genetic modification) technology, which includes Bt crops, by itself occupies a large canvas to combat abiotic stresses and improve nutritive quality of the grain. In turn, transgenic technology is only one component of agri-biotech, which includes non-GM options such as marker-assisted selection breeding (MAS), reverse breeding, grafting non-GM scion onto GM-root stocks etc. In addition, there is a gamut of strategies to alter specific genes (e.g. zinc finger nuclease, SiRNA etc) to generate desirable variants in a given crop.

Missed opportunities

While there is a huge effort to make regulatory protocols complex and time-consuming for GM-crops, many of the strategies leading to creation of mutants are outside the purview of such regulations. Even in conservative Europe, the following analysis is an eye opener: “Twenty five years of risk research on GM crops have established [that Biotechnology is not per se riskier than conventional breeding technologies] beyond reasonable doubt. We need to highlight the opportunities missed by not accepting GM crops. These include lost revenues for farmers, breeding companies and consumers, brain drain and lost technology innovations, reduced agricultural productivity and sustainability, foregone health benefits, especially reducing malnutrition, and many more realized or expected virtues of GM crops”( EMBO reports, vol. 13, 493-497, 2012).

Ingo Potrykus, who developed the Golden rice, laments “unjustified and impractical legal requirements are stopping genetically engineered crops from saving millions from starvation and malnutrition” (Nature 466, 561, 2010). In India, the embargo on Bt brinjal has demoralised researchers in the field. We need a huge work force to handle all the strategies mentioned. China is going full steam with almost 6,000 PhDs in agri-biotech alone (Chinese Academy of Sciences), whereas India has 8,900 PhDs in all sciences put together!

GM is not a stand-alone technology. It can blend with conventional technologies, including organic farming. In fact, it is ideal to have a Bt crop as central to organic farming, since the overall objective is to decrease use of chemical pesticides. A leading organic farmer told me that his products are 60-per-cent organic! Biopesticides also work through chemicals and not by magic! MAS can be applied if appropriate germplasms are available and accessible in nature. Thus, drought-tolerant maize and quality protein maize have been developed using MAS. Golden rice has been developed using the GM approach with two genes, one from daffodil and another from a soil bacterium.

If India has become a cotton-exporting country from a cotton-importing one, Bt cotton has played an important role in this change. The sustainability of Bt cotton would require both gene pyramiding along with IPM, NPM strategies, including crop rotation. A huge volume of peer-reviewed literature exists on the environmental and health safety of Bt crops. But activists tend to use anecdotes and negative activist-supported publications to oppose the technology.

All this negative propaganda does not sound convincing in the light of the fact that millions of people and cattle in the globe have been eating Bt corn for over 15 years without any authenticated report of health or environmental problems. People have also been eating corn or soya-based foods, such as oil and breakfast cereal. Livestock fed on Bt corn are the main source of meat products, imported even by Europe. One needs to worry about water availability, loss of soil fertility and hostile weather conditions. Scientists are already looking for a cold shock protein to overcome drought stress, or a nitrate reductase gene that lets the organism grow with 100 times less nitrogen than normal. It is another matter that the patent on cold shock gene has been rejected in India for the wrong reasons. It is indeed surprising that a single gene can protect against so many different stresses. Genes from plants with deep roots that can use water and nutrients very efficiently are of great interest. These areas of research are extremely important but is getting lost in all the hypothetical risks while millions of children suffer from under- and malnutrition.

The main concern appears to be that MNCs would ultimately decide on the agriculture of this country. The fact remains that they are the ones who have made the scientific discoveries and also had the muscle power to make the lab-to-land transition. This must also be the main reason to encourage agri-biotech research in Indian research institutions all the way, beyond glass houses. If MNCs are only interested in Bt and HT genes to make profits, let our institutions concentrate on abiotic stresses and nutrition quality. Our scientists should concentrate on developing Bt cotton varieties instead of hybrids.

Aid the scientists

The greatest challenge is to develop a single cereal, say rice, whichis nutritionally adequate and can withstand biotic and abiotic stresses. A real indigenous success story will dispel the fear of the unknown in public minds. I am aware that scientists in India have very good leads languishing in the laboratories. Without field trials no claim can be really substantiated. One should talk to these scientists to understand their frustration. The hurdles are so many: funding, activists, loss of trial crops, no publications, no product, no career.

Give the scientists all the facilities and freedom and if they do not deliver, haul them up. How does China deal with MNCs and also allow indigenous efforts to develop Bt rice? Why are we afraid of collaborations on an equal footing? Are we afraid of MNCs or the technology? With all the information on safety available over decades, it is time to deregulate the deployment of the main Bt genes in use. GM labelling of such a crop is not warranted. In any case, given the level of awareness in the country, both among the literate and the illiterate, GM labelling is unlikely to succeed. There is no GM labelling in the U.S. and people are quite healthy! If drought-resistant cereal is obtained by MAS as well as GM technology, would we label both as genetically modified? India needs to have an agriculture technology policy. Expert groups need to decide year after year as to which crop, which trait and which strategy has to be used. Agriculture needs to be treated as a knowledge-driven industry and not just as a traditional vocation. The farmer needs technical help on a day-to-day basis and not left to fend for himself. We cannot let Bt brinjal embargo seal the fate of this country. If there are contentious issues in the BRAI Bill, these can be debated only if the Bill is introduced. One can only hope and pray that the Supreme Court would not be misled by the recommendations of the Technical Expert Committee.

(The writer is a professor and Indian National Science Academy Senior Scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, E-mail: geepee@biochem.iisc.ernet.in)

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