South Asia

  • Q&A: Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan on GM food crops

    Ranjit Devraj

    11/06/14

Speed read

  • India will examine GM and other farm technologies on evidence and benefit

  • GM crops are safe and fears over contamination of regular crops unfounded

  • India cannot ignore rapid changes taking place in the world of agricultural biotechnology

India, one of the world’s top agricultural producers, has traditionally resisted genetically modified (GM) food crops, but is keen not to miss the agricultural biotechnology bus. 

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, secretary in India’s nodal department of biotechnology, tells SciDev.Net that the world of agribiotech is a rapidly changing one and that India needs to choose the technologies needed to address its food and nutrition issues. 

VijayRaghavan, who was elected a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in April, staunchly believes that technology and science are key to food security and that GM technology is only a small part of it.   
 
 What is the main strategy behind India adopting GM food crops. Does it have to do with keeping abreast of technological innovation in this area?

The question is not about GM as we know it today. The question is about what technologies, extant and evolving ones, do we want to use to address our food and nutrition issues. These have to be effective and scalable. New ones have to have added value over current ones, in addition to meeting regulatory requirements. So GM or not GM needlessly heats and distracts from the core debate. The world of agribiotech is rapidly changing and our debates are on waning technologies.

Neighbouring countries in South Asia are going ahead with GM food crops. Bangladesh has just cleared commercial cultivation of GM brinjal (aubergine), raising fears in India of contamination through natural cross-pollination and lateral gene transfer.

We are raising a bogey. Bt brinjal is safe. It was not introduced in India, but it has been introduced by Bangladesh. There is no evidence for “natural cross-pollination and lateral gene transfer” of the Bt gene in any such contexts. But the question takes a non-problem, asks for a yes or no answer and makes a non-issue an issue.

Two environment ministers in succession, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan, believed in applying the precautionary principle when it comes to adopting GM food crops, notably by imposing a moratorium on GM Brinjal. Will their approach be given due consideration in the future? 

I will confine myself to the precautionary principle, the views of the honourable ex-ministers are best left to others to address. I can conjure ‘reasonable’ reasons why one should not introduce Bt Brinjal. But from a scientific and logical point of view the precautionary principle is not one that seems meaningful here and not a ‘reason’ at all.

Will GM crops actually add to India’s food security?

Again, this is equivalent to asking whether the carburettor is important for fuel security. Yes, in some contexts, no in others. Technology and science are key to food security. It is usually misplaced to ask this question about a specific technology.

The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill which was designed to give quick, ‘single-window’ clearance for GM crops, could not be passed by the government that was voted out of power in May. Will an attempt be made to reintroduce it in the existing or modified form?

This is a decision the new government will examine.

A technical experts committee constituted by the Supreme Court points to potential negative impacts of GM crops on human health and biodiversity. How may these be overcome?

We (department of biotechnology) have replied to the Supreme Court in detail. It’s best to wait for the hearing.
 
Concerns voiced include implications for small and marginal farmers who may be compelled to buy expensive GM seeds from private operators every planting season.

This is an important policy issue and is always at the forefront. But this is not a GM-specific issue.

Finally, better outreach to the public on the nature of GM crops and better regulation could help build confidence. Has enough of either been done?

Regulation is ever changing and so one can never do enough and we are in step and keeping pace. Not enough on communication. Your question has been answered several times over the years and the fact that you need to ask again is testimony to how we need to improve our communication and how poor it is. 
 
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.