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Gutter Science: Inter-Academy Report On GM Crops

By Devinder Sharma

27 September, 2010
Ground Reality

I still can't overcome my disbelief. Such 'distinguished' scientific bodies, and such a shoddy report. I have always said there is good science, there is bad science but this report transgresses all earlier known brackets, and I have no hesitation in saying that the Inter-Academy Report on GM crops (see the pdf copy of the report here: http://bit.ly/cQbyCI) does not even qualify to be put in the category of bad science.

It is Gutter Science.

The Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops -- prepared by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Indian National Academy of Engineering, Indian National Science Academy, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, National Academy of Medical Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences -- and submitted in September 2010 to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, is no better than the introductory write-ups any graduate student of biotechnology would come out with. In fact, I have a collection of a large number of papers/analysis written by graduate and post-graduate students who seek my comments/views that I would rate much higher than the Inter-Academy report.

The Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops is in fact a disgrace to Indian science. That Indian science was on a downhill path was never in question, but that it had already slipped into a cesspool is a revelation. I wish the presidents of the six Indian Academies had at least read the 19-page report prepared by the Minister for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh (and which is available on the website of the ministry) at the time of announcing the moratorium on Bt Brinjal early this year, and they would have known what academic excellence means.

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh had imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal’s release until there is widespread scientific consensus on its environmental and biosafety aspects. The Inter-Academy report failes to answer any of the concerns/questions that Jairam Ramesh had raised in his paper.

The Inter-Academy report therefore is not a scientific inquiry, but a cheap public relation exercise on behalf of the GM industry. This is a scientific form of corruption, and has to be condemned in as strong words as possible.

You have probably read in newspapers how the key parts of the report -- which supports genetically modified (GM) Bt brinjal’s commercial release -- have been plagiarized from a government newsletter. According to a news report entitled 'Experts Admit GM brinjal Report Faulty' in The Telegraph (Sept 27, 2010): "Six Indian science academies had earlier this week approved the limited release of GM brinjal for cultivation in a joint report that contained 60 lines of plagiarised text, a near verbatim reproduction of an article in a biotechnology advocacy newsletter which itself had lines extracted from an industry-supported publication.

"This is unfortunate — we are devastated. This should not have happened,” said M. Vijayan, the president of the Indian National Science Academy, and a senior faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. [See the news report at http://bit.ly/9K6D2l]

The cheat slur reminds me of an almost similar incident that disgraced Indian judiciary a few months back. According to a news report: "In a major embarrassment for the Andhra Pradesh judiciary, five judges were caught cheating while writing the LLM ( Master of Law) examination for which they were promptly suspended by the High Court. One of the judges was found copying from a law book hidden under his answer sheet. Written slips and pages torn from textbooks were seized from other judges."

The Andhra Pradesh High Court was at least quick in suspending the judges who were caught cheating. Every time there is a major train accident or an aircrash, we have often seen the minister concerned resigning taking moral responsibility. When politicians can be held responsible for lapses, scientists too should be held accountable when caught with their pants down. Shouldn't the Ministry of Science & Technology therefore sack the six presidents:

-- Dr M Vijayan, Indian National Science Academy.
-- Dr A K Sood, Indian Academy of Sciences.
-- Dr P S Goel, Indian National Academy of Engineering.
-- Dr Mangala Rai, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
-- Dr K K Talwar, National Academy of Medical Sciences.
-- Dr Asis Datta, National Academy of Sciences.

The report ends with two quotations, and this sums up the inherent but brazen bias the Science Acadmies had. The first quote is from a joint statement of six major Academies of the world: “GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.” –the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences, In Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture (2000), Document made available by the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.

If the Indian science academies have to merely endorse what the foreign academies have done than what is the need to have this exercise in the first place. In any case, if you read what the six major academies across the world have said, it becomes crystal clear that science has simply gone into the lap of the industry.

I don't know why the Inter-Academy report fails to even take into consideration another international report, which has been officially endorsed by India. I am talking of the report of the three-year international collaborative effort (2005-07) that culminated in the form of a report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which clearly states that 'business as usual' is not the way forward. The answer is simple. The people and environment-friendly IAASTD report does not promote the commercial interest of the agribusiness companies.

The second quotation is from Norman Borlaug. "The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called natural methods; the 1 billion chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot. New technology will be their salvation, freeing them from obsolete, low-yielding, and more costly production technology.” Dr. Norman E. Borlaug (Nobel Prize Laureate for Peace 1970), Plant Physiology (2000). 124, 487-490.

The report therefore is on the expected lines. This only reinforces what we knew all along. Indian scientists are only capable of copy and paste.

In any case, when these academies were entrusted to come out with a report on GM crops, especially in the context of the public groundswell against genetic contamination of food crops, it should have been known that all these academies are merely letter-head organisations.

These are in reality 'retiring-room' for the retired scientists, most of whom happen to be the former head of organisations which are primarily responsible for doing the damage in the first instance. Take the case of the National Acedemy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS). It is headed by a former Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the umbrella organisation that is primarily responsible for the terrible agrarian distress and cannot wash its hands off the spate of farmer suicides that dot the countryside.

The other national academies are no different. In fact, all these scientific bodies are promoting public-private partnership (PPP) and therefore cannot be expected to stand up against the commercial interests of the biotechnology companies. It will be interesting to know the names of the scientists who contributed to the report, and the research projects they have undertaken in the past along with the funding support.

Meanwhile, Dr M Vijayan, INSA president has been quoted in The Telegraph as saying: "The academies will now examine the report again, introduce references for all text extracted from earlier publications, and release the names of all the scientists who contributed to the report. 'But, he said, the main recommendations are unlikely to change.' This should not be allowed since the report is simply a compilation of what suits the vested interests of these bodies.

I suggest the following:

-- Like the judges caught cheating, the presidents of the six academies should be first removed.

-- There is an urgent need to revamp the science academies. All retired scientists should be removed, and these science academies should include eminent citizens from different walks of life.

-- There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Jairam Ramesh's paper that resulted in the moratorium on Bt brinjal needs to be examined, and all public fears and concerns need to be addressed point-by-point.

Only gutter science will like to bypass social and environmental concerns.