Highlights growing scientific evidence on adverse impacts
New Delhi, 21st November, 2013: At a time when the debate around Genetically Modified (GM) crops in the country is heating up, hundreds of Indian scientists have written to the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, asking him to ensure that Government of India heeds to the voice of science and accepts the recommendations in the final report of the independent scientists in the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee. They also urged for the stopping of all open air releases of GMOs in the country, as recommended by the majority TEC report. The letter initiated by five leading scientists from the fields of Molecular Biology, Agriculture Science, Immunology, Ecology and Science Policy Studies was released to the media at a press conference here by Dr Tushar Chakraborty and Prof Dinesh Abrol who are amongst the initiators. The letter has been endorsed by more than 250 scientists from various fields of expertise including 11 former and present Vice Chancellors of Universities across the country as well as 3 Padma awardees.
The letter comes at a time when the Supreme Court is scheduled to have a crucial hearing in the coming week, to take a view on the recommendations of a Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) set up in a PIL related to environmental release of GMOs in India. Five independent members of the TEC, who are eminent scientists in the fields of Molecular Biology, Biodiversity, Nutrition Science, Toxicology, Sustainability Science etc., and therefore, highly qualified in commenting on the safety aspects related to GMOs, in their Final report to the Court had strongly reccomended against any open release of GM crops, including field trials, until ‘major gaps in the regulatory system’ are addressed.
Speaking at the press conference, Dr Tushar Chakraborty, Head of the Gene Control Laboratory, Indian Institute of Chemical Biology and Member, State Biotechnology Council of West Bengal, pointed out that “there is an undue haste in getting GMOs released into the environment while the science behind its development is still controversial and evolving”. He further bemoaned the fact that “while there is a growing body of scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GM crops to human health and biodiveristy, there is hardly any effort from the Indian government or public sector research institutions to take up rigorous, independent safety assessment. We are instead in a dangerous and unneeded rat race of developing more GM crops and push them out into the environment without even understanding their longterm as well as cumulative impacts”
The GM debate in the Indian scientific circles has seen a polarisation due to the contradicting views between the final report submitted to the Court by the 5 independent members in the TEC and a separate report by the sixth member inducted into the Committee on the insistence of the Agriculture Ministry, Dr R.S Paroda. Dr Paroda was brought into the TEC by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and other GM advocates after an interim report of the TEC recommended strongly against any open releases of GM crops until flaws in the regulatory system are corrected. There has been strong condemnation of the fact that somebody like Dr Paroda, who has an explicit conflict interest of being an advisor to Monsanto, the world’s largest biotech seed giant and of leading organisations which are funded by companes like Mahyco, the Indian collaborator of Monsanto, was made a member of the TEC, when the Supreme Court in this very case has time and again issued orders that upheld the importance of independent expertise driving decision making in this matter.
“The history of GM crops, not just in India but across the world, has been laden with such conflicts of interest and corporate control of agriculture research” said Prof Dinesh Abrol, a science policy studies expert, and a visiting professor to Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The speakers pointed out to studies that show that scientists with relationship with industry are more significantly associated with data withholding than others, in genetics and other life sciences. Research also shows that existence of financial and professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light. Another study which looked at risk assessment studies found that such research is still limited, especially in particular crops; this study found an equilibrium in the number of research groups suggesting on the basis of their studies that a number of varieties of GM products to be as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns. It also noted that most of these studies have been conducted by biotechnology companies responsible for commercializing these GM plants. “All of this illustrates the lack of independent scientific research to the extent needed, in addition to lack of scientific consensus. Without addressing these issues, there is no urgent need to rush into GM crop open air releases”, Prof Abrol said.
The press conference also saw the release of the 2nd edition of the compilation of scientific references and abstracts of more than 400 peer reviewed papers on various adverse impacts of GM crops/foods published across the world2. The compilation also has brief commentarieswritten by eminent leading scientists like Dr M. S Swaminathan, Dr Pushpa Bhargava and Prof Madhav Gadgil, considered as doyens of agriculture science, molecular biology and ecology respectively, in India.
Releasing the compilation, Kavitha Kuruganti, Coalition for a GM-Free India, stated that “There is no dearth of scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GMOs in our food, farming and environment; what is needed is the eyes to see it, the wisdom to understand it and the conscience to accept it”. She further stated that “GM crops are one of the biggest scientific frauds that Biotech seed Industry, ably supported by some of our unscrupulous policy makers and public sector scientists, are pulling off on our country”.
In another development on the biosafety research front, researchers from the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, have confirmed the carcinogenic potential of Roundup herbicide using human skin cells exposed to extremely low concentrations of the world’slargest selling herbicide, used along with GM herbicide tolerant crops3. The study gains a lot of significance at a time when there are efforts from the Biotech Industry to release Herbicide Tolerant (HT) GM crops that will substantially increase the usage of herbicides like Roundup. The Final TEC report by the five independent members had strongly recommended against the release of any HT GM crops in India due to various such concerns.
The speakers urged the Prime Minister to be responsive to science and responsible to society when deciding on such risky technologies like GM crops which pose a threat to human health, biodiversity and farm livelihoods. They demanded that the Government of India stay clear of any vested interests and accept the recommendations of the TEC Final report as it is based on sound science, principles of sustainability and intergenerational justice. This, they said, would help in ensuring the speedy delivery of justice in the PIL on the issue of GM crops .
Notes to the editor:
- The letter from Indian scientists to the Prime Minister on the issue of GM crops and their regualtion can be accessed athttp://indiagminfo.org/?p=654
- The 2nd edition of the compilation of scientific references and abstracts on various adverse impacts of GM crops/foods is available at http://indiagminfo.org/?p=657
- The study from Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, can be accessed at http://www.hindawi.com/isrn/