Veteran biotechnologist Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw says the best way to counter transnational seed company Monsanto's "monopoly" in India's cotton seed sector is to allow competition to develop similar technologies, maintaining that activism against genetically modified (GM) crops is stifling the efforts of Indian firms.
Though a substantial level of the country's cotton contains Monsanto's technology, which is licensed to over 25 Indian seed companies, the Chairperson and Managing Director of biotech firm Biocon said the criticism that this will put India's seed sovereignty in jeopardy is too far-fetched.
"The best way to counter such a monopoly is to allow competition to develop similar technologies," she said here. "All this activism against GM crops is stifling the efforts of the Indian companies as well the public sector institutions to come up with competing technologies. The anti-GM activists may thus be helping the multinationals to hold on to their monopoly."
On the Supreme Court-appointed technical experts committee (TEC) on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) recently recommending that there should not be any field trials of GM crops until gaps in the regulatory systems are addressed, Mazumdar-Shaw said the report has disregarded the enormous body of evidence attesting to the safety and benefits of GM crops.
She said one of the members (Dr R S Paroda, former Director General of Indian Council of Agricultural Research), who was added to the committee in order to bring in someone with real expertise in agriculture, has not signed the report, and he has presented a separate report which in all likelihood is at significant variance with the former.
"It may also be noted that the members of the TEC who have signed the report have for a long time opposed the introduction of GM crops and therefore it is not at all surprising that they recommended the ban.
If you have been following the story, this report has been roundly condemned, not just by scientists, but by several other stakeholders, including farmers," Mazumdar-Shaw said.
She said, "India's regulatory system is well designed - the proof is that after over a decade of commercialisation of Bt cotton, there is not a single credible report of any harm to humans, animals or the environment. "On the other hand, the benefits have been many; the production, productivity and farmer incomes have all gone up! The functioning of our regulatory system is being stifled by strident activism and misleading campaigns. Even our legal structures are being misused to this end."
"Well, this does not mean that there is no scope for further improving the present regulatory system. But for this you need not stop the trials. Do you think we should stop all construction work in the country because the building regulations need improvements?" she asked.
Asked about the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan expressing concern at field- testing of GM crops, she said: "If the minister has expressed such a concern, it is certainly unfounded." She also argued that the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill (which is yet to be tabled in Parliament) does effectively address some of the inadequacies of the present system.
It was prepared after wide-ranging consultations among all stakeholders including the public, Mazumdar-Shaw said. However, it can be further refined and that should happen through discussions in various fora including the Parliament. Demand for outright rejection of the bill based on mere canards is not in the interest of democratic functioning.
On Agriculture Ministry favouring GMOs, and Environment Ministry wanting to put field trials of GM crops in abeyance till the Parliament passes BRAI bill, she said: "The agricultural ministry is mandated to promote Indian agriculture and if they find GM crops to be a potent option to reach this end, what is wrong with it? "
The Environment and Forest Ministry is mandated to protect the environment and promote its sustained use for the welfare of countrymen, Mazumdar-Shaw said.
"There are many studies which have established that GM crops can reduce pesticide use and consequently increase the number of beneficial insects and other non-pest organisms, in addition to reducing human and animal exposure to noxious chemicals."
"The claims that GM crops can harm biodiversity and the environment are mere propaganda and not supported by facts. If we go by facts and hard data, the regulatory system should actually be a facilitator for the responsible introduction of technologies like GM crops, which can actually promote environmental sustainability," Mazumdar-Shaw said.
She argued that field trials have to continue under the present system while the new regulatory bill is being discussed and passed. Field trials are essential to evaluate the safety and efficacy of any crop improvement technology. "The time to pass a bill by our Parliament can range from months to many years! Development of new technologies that can potentially pull out our agriculture from the dire situation that it is in presently should not be delayed unnecessarily.
As Pandit Nehru has said, "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture," Mazumdar-Shaw commented. She disagreed with Jayanthi Natarajan's reported statement that a robust and proven fail safe scientific protocols to prevent damage from GM crops are yet to be developed in India, saying "We have a fairly good regulatory system and it should be allowed to function without being derailed by political interventions. Of course, it can and need to be continuously improved and strengthened."
Asked if she thought the government must take an "extremely well calibrated and judicious approach" as the GM technology could impact millions of farmers and alter food supply chains permanently, she agreed that government should take a well calibrated and judicious approach.
"And that means, field trials should be continued and the regulatory system should be allowed to function in an unfettered manner. Improvements to the system should be continuous and based on actual facts and scientific principles," Mazumdar-Shaw added.