Representative image | File photo of farmers planting cotton seedlings in Nagpur | ANI
Representative image | File photo of farmers planting cotton seedlings in Nagpur | ANI
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New Delhi: Eminent agriculture scientists and experts wrote to the Karnataka government Tuesday seeking permission to conduct Biosafety Regulatory Level 1 (BRL 1) field trials of crops like Bt cotton and Bt maize. Bt crops are genetically modified (GM), by adding genes derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to enhance their qualities, such as making them pest-resistant.

Biosafety Regulatory Level 1 (BRL 1) field trials are conducted in compliance with stringent biosafety regulations laid out by the Centre’s Department of Biotechnology, and are similar to clinical trials done before the release of any new drug. 

The experts have also pointed out that despite the success of Bt Cotton (the experts are now seeking permission for trial for other variants of Bt cotton) in India, no other crop enhanced by biotechnological methods has been released in the country since 2002.

Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop that was approved for commercial cultivation by the Indian government. That was way back in 2002. Since then, there have been many field trials of GM crops, including Bt crops, but commercial cultivation hasn’t started for any of them.

In their communication to the Karnataka government, the experts have argued that farmers have been demanding technological advancements that will improve crop productivity and resist pest attacks. They have also pointed out that regulatory field trials are an integral part of the research and development process to evaluate the efficacy of newly-developed biotech crops.

Dr B.V. Patil, former vice-chancellor and senior entomologist, University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur, Karnataka, explained in a statement that “adoption of new innovative methods and practices by farmers will not only increase food for feeding the growing population, but also make agriculture more sustainable and profitable. This ultimately fulfills the Prime Minister’s vision of doubling farmers’ incomes”.

He added “One innovative method is the adoption of successful and proven GM technology. Farmers have witnessed the tremendous benefit of Bt gene, which when integrated to cotton helped control attacks from pests like bollworms, particularly the Helicoverpa bollworm, and helped them to get higher benefits. I recommend integrating GM technology in pest management. Conducting research trials by scientists should be permitted as top priority.”

Also read: India will lose on agri-tech, experts tell PM, seek quicker approval for gene-edited plants

‘Consultation with subject matter experts only’

Earlier this year, the Modi government shifted the onus of granting permission for field trials to states. The centre had then said that seed makers’ proposals for scientific field trials of GM crops will not be taken up for consideration by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — the apex panel handling GM matters — without recommendations from states/union territories where the trials are proposed to be undertaken. According to scientists, since then, states have increasingly sought public opinion on the matter prior to approving or denying permission.

Agricultural experts have pointed out that seeking public opinion before the trials is not the right procedure, as they feel that public consultation for research experiments can only be valid and unbiased when people have a good understanding of technology.

Instead, scientists argue, states should seek the opinion of domain experts to evaluate potential benefits of such trials, understand the science behind it and specify precautions to be followed during trials based on that.

To support their claim, experts cited the example of a company that had approached the state Department of Forests, Ecology and Environment, seeking a ‘no objection certificate’ (NOC) to conduct some BRL-1 trials. However, the department after obtaining the opinion of domain experts, also published an advertisement in a newspaper seeking public opinion on the same. The company is yet to get permission for the trials.

“Decisions for a scientific matter through the public consultation may otherwise push the country many years back,” Dr S.A. Patil, former director Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and Former VC, University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad said in the statement released by the experts.

Patil gave the example of how “in the past scientists from IARI, Delhi University and University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad had developed high efficacy GM crops, however, none could see the light of the day due to unscientific reasons.”

“It is time India has thinks scientifically, as public opinion for scientific endeavours doesn’t have any meaning. Opinions matter only from scientific experts who understand the nitty-gritty of a scientific experiment. Unfortunately, it seems that unscientific ways have become the order of the day today in India,” said Patil.

The experts also noted that having a sound scientific basis for evaluating new technologies is an important first step in bringing progress in Indian agriculture given the vagaries created by climate change.

Giving the example of how the introduction of Bt cotton has helped boost cotton production in the country, Patil said, “Bt cotton has tremendously reduced the pesticide usage on cotton, while otherwise cotton was known as the pesticides loving crop. The production of cotton has reached 400 lakh bales from 140 lakh bales due to Bt cotton. It was only possible because of GM cotton. Otherwise, we would have been at 150-200 lakh bales with a bit of area or productivity increase. Eleven different GM crops are grown successfully throughout the world as 90 per cent of corn, soybean and cotton grown in USA are covered by the GM versions.”

He added: Policymakers will have to enable development and evaluation of technologies in a reliable and time-bound manner as technology developers can be motivated to invest in research if such initiatives are visible. If at every step developer has to go through unnecessary hurdles, it would be hard to put money on the table to develop relevant solutions to solve continuously emerging challenges to agriculture. A reliable and predictable regulatory framework is need of the hour and in its absence, we can expect farmers to desert profession and look for greener pastures endangering self-sufficiency, which India has managed to develop through diligent initiatives.”

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: How an agritech firm is helping Haryana, Punjab farmers use bio-decomposer to curb stubble burning


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