GM science robust, Indian scientists emphasise

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.154 Published online 23 November 2013

India will be looking at the debate over Genetically Modified (GM) crops armed with the "strength of the robust science of transgenics" and not by getting too embroiled in the issue of what multinationals will or will not gain out of it.

Secretary to India's Department of Biotechnology Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan says the science behind GM crops is "crystal clear" and the way forward would be to test such crops in accordance with the country's regulatory system by "asking the right scientific questions".

"The fight right now is primarily on the business motives of some multinationals. We shouldn't derail the GM debate with that. World over regulators agree that all health and food safety norms must be in place before large scale trials are undertaken. That is the only scientific criteria to look at," VijayRaghavan, former director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, told Nature India in an interview.

DBT has piloted the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, which has met large scale opposition from environment groups in the country but is being hailed as 'balanced' by some biotechnology experts.

The long-drawn debate over genetically modified (GM) crops in India also saw a shocker last year when one of the country's Parliamentary committees said it was 'highly disconcerted' over the pressure being created by the GM industry over the body responsible for approval of GM crops. The committee said it smelt a 'collusion of a worst kind' between the approving committee and the industry and recommended a thorough independent probe into the introduction and subsequent moratorium on Bt. brinjal in India. However, neighbouring Bangladesh recently introduced Bt Brinjal in that country.

India's Supreme Court-appointed export committee recommended in July 2013 an indefinite moratorium on open field trials of GM crops until all regulatory and safety concerns are addressed.

Several GM crops are at various stages of research and development in India. Scientists emphasise that there is a need to streamline regulations so that these technologies can be taken forward.

"The phenomenonal success of Bt cotton has clearly shown the need for GM technology to deal with problems being faced by Indian agriculture sector," according to plant molecular biologist and biotechnologist P Ananda Kumar. Kumar, Director of the Institute of Agri biotechnology at Acharya N. G. Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad, says the biosafety concerns can be addressed by scientific institutions.

The issue has been discussed among leading biotechnologists and crop scientists at a workshop organised by Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and New Delhi-based Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL) in Hyderabad today (November 23, 2013). The workshop ran parallel to the ongoing international meet on Genetic Engineering Applications in Grains and Legume Crops organized by ICRISAT.

On food safety, Boindala Sesikeran, a former Director of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and Chairman of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) said India's safety standards are based on best international practices, and were in accordance with the principles and guidelines of Codex Alimentarius. "India's food safety standards provide sufficient information for the safety assessment of GM products," he said.

It is important that the various stakeholders in the GM debate be made aware of the scientific aspect of biotechnology products, says Rajeev Varshney, a research programme director on grain legumes at ICRISAT.

During the meet, BCIL, a DBT-supported organisation that facilitates commercialisation of biotechnology and promotes awareness on it, also introduced an e-learning module on compliance management of confined field trials that can be used by people involved in the trials, regulatory authorities and scientists from various public and private sector institutions.