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Indian Advisory Panel Defends GM Research

9 October 2012 3:25 pm
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Modified disagreement. Indian leaders are divided over allowing genetically modified crops into the nation. In 2010, the government blocked the introduction of a modified variety of brinjal (above), a type of eggplant, but it has allowed genetically modified cotton.

NEW DEHLI—A report released today by the Indian prime minister's Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) makes a strong pitch for wider acceptance of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Chaired by chemist C. N. R. Rao of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, the report from the 32-member SAC panel describes genetic modification as a transformational technology that has benefited agriculture and health. The endorsement differs sharply from a parliamentary panel that took a negative view of genetically modified (GM) technology this summer. Today's SAC report also warns that "[t]he current debate, unfortunately, is demoralizing and isolating our scientists in the sector whose skills have been built with painstaking effort and large investment."

Opinion is heavily divided on the use of agricultural GM technology in India. Ten years ago, India adopted Bt cotton, which uses modified bacterial genes to control pests. But in 2010 the government put a stop to the introduction of similar technology in Bt brinjal, a type of eggplant. In a review of policy conflicts this summer, a 31-member parliamentary panel on agriculture gave its thumbs-down to GM food. It also linked GM technology to multinational companies like Monsanto, for which there is deep public distrust. It recommended that GM "field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith" and that research and development should "only be done in strict containment." Some experts suggested that it sounded a death knell for all research on genetically modified crops in India.

In contrast, the SAC report calls for the establishment of an independent watchdog called the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India, housed outside the Ministry of Science, to instill confidence in the GM crop regulatory process. "Little is served by focusing on the flaws only," the report says. A bill to establish such an authority is before the parliament.

The Rao report says that generally, "endorsement or opposition to a generic technology is scientifically not rational," and argues instead that "safety and efficacy must be judged on product basis." It points to GM crops in 2011 "of maize, soya, potato, sugar beet, canola, cotton and alfalfa and grown across the globe covering 160 million hectares," noting: "We believe the performance of GM crops released through oversight by regulators has been very positive."

The opposing recommendations from the scientific panel and the parliamentary panel will now be considered by the government and implemented through the ministries.

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