Regulating Genetic Modification

Published in The Hindu, February 25, 2014; by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan

It is 61 years since the beginning of new genetics based on the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. It is also 31 years since the production of transgenic plants. The first patent for a living organism went to Dr. Anand Chakraborty who, through recombinant DNA technology, developed an organism to clean up oil spills. The fields of medicine, industry, environment and agriculture have reaped the benefits of the science of molecular genetics. In medicine, it has led to new vaccines, insulin and genetic medicine. The major concern in medical genetics is one of ethics, an example being the application of recombinant DNA technology for reproductive cloning.

Therapeutic cloning, on the other hand, has been welcomed. Growing pollution of ground and river water has created great interest in bioremediation methodologies in the field of environmental biotechnology. It is only in food and agricultural biotechnology that there are concerns about biosafety, environmental safety, biodiversity loss and human and farm animal health.

In technologies which share benefits and risks, it is important to have regulatory mechanisms which can help to analyse risks and benefits in an impartial and professionally competent manner. It is the same in the case of nuclear energy. This is why the government introduced a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill in Parliament.

Unfortunately, the validity of this Bill has now expired with the conclusion of the 15th Lok Sabha. This gives the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), the Ministry of Environment and Forests and other agencies a chance to revisit the text of the Bill and get a new Bill prepared for introduction as soon as the new Parliament convenes. An academy may be set up to prepare a new text which is likely to have greater political, public, professional and media acceptance.

Addressing concerns
The Agricultural Biotechnology Committee — which I chaired in 2003 and which submitted its report early in 2004 — had recommended a Parliament approved regulatory agency as well as the necessary infrastructure for conducting all India coordinated trials with genetically modified organisms (GMO). The necessary precautions, such as the needed isolation as well as demonstration of the importance of refuge, should be undertaken under this project. As 10 years have passed since this recommendation was made, we should lose no further time in implementing it. There must be a trial and safety assessment system which answers the concerns of anti-GMO non-governmental organisations. The present moratorium on field trials with recombinant DNA material is a handicap as well as a disincentive in harnessing the benefits of the wide array of transgenic material available with various research organisations and universities. Many of the GMOs in the breeders’ assembly line have excellent qualities for resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses as well as improved nutrition. Much of this work has been done in institutions committed to public good. Also, much of the work has been done by young scientists, discouraged now because of the lack of a clear official signal on the future of genetic modification.

As agriculture is a state subject, State agricultural universities and State departments of agriculture should be involved in the design and implementation of field trials. It takes nearly 10 years time for a new variety to be ready for recommendation to farmers. Therefore, speed is of the essence in organising field trials and getting reliable data on risks and benefits.

Public-private partnership
The return from investments in biotechnology research is very high. Bt cotton research might have resulted in a profit of over Rs.50,000 crore, as compared to the total expenditure of about Rs.100 crore in such research. Public sector institutions should concentrate on the development of high yielding and disease resistant varieties, while obviously the private sector will only produce hybrids whose seeds will have to be brought every year by farmers. A joint strategy by public and private sectors will help to ensure the inclusiveness of access to improved technologies among all farmers.

Nutrition security involves paying attention to balanced diets (both macro and micronutrients), clean drinking water, sanitation, primary health care and nutrition literacy. While the Food Security Act 2013 will ensure that all needing social protection against hunger will be able to get the needed calories, other nutritional problems such as protein hunger and hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micro-nutrients will need similar attention. Thus, while working for nutritional security, both food and non-food factors, particularly drinking water and sanitation, will require concurrent attention.

Biofortification also needs our attention. Naturally biofortified crops like yellow flesh sweet potato, drumstick, amla, breadfruit, etc should be popularised in nutrition gardens and agroforestry systems. Biofortified crops developed by selection and breeding like iron rich bajra should also become available. On my suggestion, the Finance Minister provided in the budget for 2013-14, Rs.200 crore for promoting nutri-farms in districts where there is a high malnutrition burden. We should launch a programme this year, as also the International Year of Family Farming, to develop every family farm into a nutri farm, so that agricultural remedies can be applied to the major nutritional maladies prevalent in the area.

Promoting research
There is need for a pan-India political support to promote genetic engineering research. Every research institution should have a project selection committee to examine whether recombinant DNA technology is necessary to achieve the desired breeding goal. In many cases, marker assisted selection would be adequate for developing a variety with the necessary characters. Recombinant DNA technology should be resorted to only when there is no other way of achieving the desired objective.

Translational research needs greater attention for converting scientific know-how into farmers’ do-how. Culinary and organoleptic characteristics of new varieties should be examined with the help of home science colleges. There is increasing interest in organic farming. Organic farming certification procedures permit the use of marker assisted selection.

Several States want to become organic farming states. ICAR should explain the pre-requisites for successful organic farming, such as the availability of adequate organic manure and plant protection measures which do not need synthetic pesticides. There has to be a methodology to face the challenge of the unholy triple alliance of pests, pathogens and weeds on organic farms.

Biodiversity is the feedstock of the biotechnology industry. Therefore, the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity should be a major concern of biotechnologists. Krishi Vigyan Kendras should have the capability of offering scientifically credible advice to farmers on GMOs. The academy should set up two committees — on the public understanding of science and the political understanding of science — on the pattern of such committees set up by the Royal Society of London.

Disseminating information
Media resource centres should be set up to give up-to-date scientific information to media representatives. Village knowledge centres should be utilised for spreading correct information on GMOs.

Countries like the United States have effective regulatory mechanisms supported by scientific infrastructure. In the U.S., three agencies — The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Agricultural Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) — are concerned with regulations and work as a team while examining and clearing the safety aspects of GMOs. It is time that we also have a professionally managed and coordinated efficient regulatory mechanism.

The academy should facilitate the early removal of the moratorium on field trials by ensuring that such trials will be conducted under safe conditions. The academy could also develop a statement on new technologies for small farmers to be considered for inclusion in the election manifestos of political parties.

(Prof. M.S. Swaminathan is founder chairman and chief mentor, UNESCO Chair in Ecotechnology, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai.)