|S Jaipal Reddy at his office in New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Oct. 29: India’s new science and technology minister Sudini Jaipal Reddy appeared to take on the nation’s top scientific advisory panel on his first day in office today, saying the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops remains unresolved.
“The issue of GM crops is under discussion at a global level — a scientific consensus has not emerged,” Reddy said, after taking over the departments of science and technology, biotechnology, scientific and industrial research and earth sciences.
Reddy’s remarks, at his first media conference as science minister, seemed to challenge the view that the scientific advisory council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM) has adopted.
The SAC-PM in a statement earlier this month had said: “Several countries are growing GM crops, the performance of GM crops has been positive and this view has been endorsed by (international) scientific bodies.”
The SAC-PM, claiming to articulate the stand of India’s science community, had suggested that the debate that followed the moratorium on GM food crop imposed by the Union environment ministry two years ago was “demoralising” India’s scientists.
But Reddy today said the issue of GM crops is “not ideological, but a scientific issue”. This issue, he said, is still under debate at a global level, but Indian science has advanced to a level where it can meaningfully engage in this debate.
India’s scientific community itself appears divided over the role of GM food crops.
A five-member technical advisory committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court in its interim report released earlier this month had recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM food crops.
It also called for a restructuring of the existing regulatory system, which it described as unsatisfactory and inadequate. The TEC has biologists, toxicologists and a nutrition specialist as members.
Some senior scientists view the SAC-PM statement, issued just two days after the TEC’s report, as an attempt to counter the TEC’s observations.
“I wonder whether any member of the SAC-PM has indeed scrutinised the scientific evidence for and against GM crops,” said Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, who has also been seeking regulatory reforms.
Reddy was greeted today by science and technology secretary T. Ramasami, the director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, S.K. Brahmachari, and senior biotechnology officials.
“In an intellectual sense, I’m excited by this ministry,” Reddy said. “I believe in the philosophy of science — this ministry is hoping to increase the number of full-time researchers in India from 1.54 lakh now to 2.5 lakh by 2017.”
A senior science policy maker said he was impressed by the way Reddy handled questions from reporters about whether he was unhappy at being removed from his earlier portfolio of petroleum and natural gas.
“I have no regrets on portfolios,” said Reddy, who is the longest-serving legislator from Andhra Pradesh, having been elected 11 times.
“I have never in my life haggled or bargained for a portfolio... no minister is ever told about reasons (for change)... the formation of the cabinet is the privilege of the Prime Minister.”