New Delhi, Oct. 9: India’s highest scientific advisory panel has thrown its weight behind genetically-modified crops, appearing to question for the first time a moratorium on a GM food crop imposed by the Union environment ministry two years ago.
The Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) to the Prime Minister has said India will need to adopt a judicious blend of traditional breeding and GM technology to combat challenges of land shortages, low productivity, soil-laden soils, drought, and post-harvest losses.
In a statement released this evening, the SAC said GM maize, soya, potato, canola, and cotton are grown in many countries and the performance of GM crops has been very positive. “This view is endorsed by (international) scientific bodies,” it said.
Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had in February 2010 imposed a moratorium on the cultivation of GM brinjal although a regulatory body under his own ministry had approved it. Ramesh had said that critics had raised “legitimate concerns” about GM brinjal and that India needed a regulatory system that inspires confidence among the public.
The SAC today said that the precautionary principle is “inherently sound” but it must be applied through a science-based safety assessment and social and economic analysis of the need for commercial cultivation of GM crops.
“This is an attempt to articulate our stand on a contentious issue,” a member of the SAC told The Telegraph. “There needs to be a rational process for evidence gathering and an objective way of reading the evidence.”
Sections of the biotechnology community have viewed the moratorium on GM brinjal as “unscientific” as, they claim, it has overlooked evidence that established the safety of the plants. But critics have questioned these assessments and reliability of tests.
“The current debate is demoralising and isolating our scientists whose skills have been built with painstaking effort and large investments. The policy confusion will keep the brightest scientists away from this field of research,” the SAC said in its statement.
Plant biologists say India is losing time over the impasse over GM crops.
“We need to resolve this debate quickly — there are several GM crops in the pipeline,” Asis Datta, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research, New Delhi, told The Telegraph.
Datta himself had developed a protein-rich potato, but other GM crops under various stages of development include a tomato with a long shelf life and rice plants engineered for various favourable traits.
The SAC has called for a restructuring of the two existing regulatory bodies that approve field trials of GM crops and assess safety studies ahead of final approval for commercial cultivation. It has recommended that the review committee on genetic manipulation (RCGM) and the Genetic Engineering appraisal committee (GEAC) should exclusively assess the safety and efficacy of GM crops.
The decision on commercial cultivation should be left to agricultural ministry, it said.
“We’re calling for a clear regulatory separation of safety assessment of a crop and the assessment of the need for commercialisation of a GM crop already assessed as safe,” the SAC member said, requesting anonymity.
“These should be two different decisions based on two different sets of criteria — safety assessment on the basis of toxicity test results and the cultivation on the basis of farmers, prices, commercial implications.”
The SAC has also recommended that both RCGM and GEAC should have fulltime chairpersons and the RCGM chairperson should be the co-chair of the GEAC but should not be nominated by the biotechnology department.
Both bodies are currently chaired by officials in biotechnology and environment who also hold other responsibilities. “The job of the chairperson of a regulatory authority should be fulltime — we need a senior secretary-level individual,” an SAC member said.