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Scientific Enough

By Kavitha Kuruganti

08 November, 2012

The Supreme Court of India did a right thing by constituting a Technical Expert Committee to look into scientific issues being raised by a Public Interest Litigation filed by Aruna Rodrigues and others in the issue of deliberate release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their use in our food and farming systems. As the Court's orders of 10 th May 2012 state, the “intent and substance of the petition is to put in place a protocol that shall maintain scientific examination of all relevant aspects of bio safety before such release , if release were to be at all permissible”.

It is obvious that the learned judges would not be experts in the subject (not that expertise in the subject should be the sole criterion going into decision-making but in the case of the limited terms of reference in question here, such expertise was needed) and had sought to rely on experts who enjoyed the faith of both petitioners and respondents. For proponents of GM, the SC TEC recommendations are unwelcome and they have been terming it unscientific. Their allegations need to be examined closely.

TEC consists of scientists nominated both by petitioners & respondents

The TEC consists of experts who have no vested interests and were nominated by both parties to the case. On top of that, they ran an inquiry process that was fairly elaborate, especially when compared to the science academies or the PM-SAC. Further, while genetic engineers who make GM crops (and have vested interest) can be termed as technicians who know how to make a product, here is a team of scientists who are real experts in the field of safety assessment, which is the contentious side to the technology. The field of toxicological and environmental safety assessment is by no means unscientific! To assume that only one field of science is scientific is in itself unscientific. Further, to cry hoarse about how these recommendations if implemented would mean an end to scientific research is unscientific.

Not an end to scientific research, but a call to prioritise research investments

Biotechnology and its tools cannot be equated with transgenics which is only a small part of the S&T of biotechnology. The illogical attraction to controversial technologies like genetic modification with vast resources invested on it is unscientific, especially for the public sector (while it is apparent why private industry invests on this, given the ease with which tinkering of genes can provide access to monopolistic IPRs) when many other methods of dealing successfully with crop production problems are available. This is all the more so given the scandals that the public sector in India ran into, at least twice so far on the GM crop investment front – the Bt bikaneri narma episode, where a so-called “indigenous” Bt cotton was found to contain Monsanto's proprietary ‘event' and now, with the former head of NRCPB (national research centre on plant biotechnology) pointing out to his bosses that he does not know where the output of a few GM research projects went, when one of his lead scientists moved on to become India's NBPGR Director.

The need to prioritise our agri-research and extension investments is indeed important given the limited resources available and given the IPR hold that the private sector has on many technologies and products, not to mention risks of particular technologies (which this TEC studied). What the SC TEC had recommended around certain traits and crops to be kept off even from the R & D pipeline is nothing new – in fact, the Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology headed by Dr M S Swaminathan said a similar thing in 2003. This task force report was accepted by the Agriculture Ministry, incidentally; during the Bt brinjal debate in early 2010, Jairam Ramesh famously said ‘Bt technology is a solution looking for a problem', while trying to highlight that well established, successful alternatives exist to take care of pest management without synthetic pesticides. If policy directives had been adopted and implemented, we would not have heard the same thing from a Court-appointed TEC. Now that this could actually be converted into Orders by the learned bench, the industry is going into a tizzy. But isn't it only sensible not to invest in the R&D of products which are unneeded, or may not pass stringent, long-term, independent safety tests?

Improving regulation

There are many media pieces being written on how we should focus on improving regulation. If everyone agrees that our regulatory regime is indeed pathetic, how can we agree to field trials which are essentially open air releases of untested, unknown organisms, even while the biosafety assessment regime is being questioned, with conflict of interest in decision-making apparent, with violations of rules regularly, with monitoring capabilities missing (one recent investigation on field trial violations took place one year after it was reported, for instance), with no liability regime in place for any deliberate open air releases including field trials and so on?

The Supreme Court asked the TEC to recommend to them “Whether there should or should not be any ban, partial or otherwise, upon conducting of open field tests of the GMOs? In the event open field trials are permitted, what protocol should be followed and conditions, if any, that may be imposed by the Court for implementation of open field trials” in an interim report and that is exactly what the TEC did – no question of overstepping the mandate, as some proponents have accused.

Focus on Alternatives

The Court and its TEC need not have come into the picture if our governments showed some prudence in deciding at the policy level, through deliberative democratic processes, where our valuable resources will go in supporting farmers' in their agriculture and securing our food security as well as sovereignty and thereby, putting lasting solutions on the ground. Doesn't it occur to those who are branding this TEC report as unscientific and want to ‘reply' to it in the Court (the industry bodies clearly with a vested interest to profiteer) that processes led by independent scientific experts, a Minister in the government and Parliamentarians across parties are recommending similar things – surely, we should see concrete action now? Surely, we should focus on alternatives that are safer, proven, affordable, farmer-controlled and requiring policy attention?

- Kavitha Kuruganti is the Convenor of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a national platform of hundreds of organizations across 20 states of India




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