Advent of the era of Genetically Modified Crops - Prof M S Swaminathan

June 1, 2015: According to media reports, our PM has announced that we should take full advantage of genetically modified crops for improving the productivity and profitability of farming in our country. The history of genetic modification goes back to 1953 when Watson, Crick and Wilkins announced the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. From 1980 onwards methods of gene transfer using suitable vectors have been standardised. The very first GMO was in the flower Petunia. Since then a wider range of GMOs has become available both for commercial cultivation and for field trials. Because of suspected unanticipated adverse impacts of GMOs on human and animal health as well as on environment and biodiversity, biosafety regulations have become important. USA has the largest number of GM crops under commercial cultivation. In India, so far only Bt Cotton has been allowed for commercialisation. Bangladesh has allowed Bt Brinjal also. The Maharashtra State Government has permitted field trials for a number of GMOs. Most of the other states have announced that they will prefer organic farming instead of GMOs.

 Recombinant DNA technology permits us to move genes across sexual barriers and thereby create novel genetic combinations. For example, at MSSRF genes for salt tolerance from the mangrove species Avicennia marina and for drought tolerance, from Prosopis juliflora have been transferred to rice varieties. Unless field testing is permitted, we will not be able to assess the benefits and risks in a reliable manner. Hence atleast field testing of GMO should not be prevented. As far as commercial release is concerned, this will have to be done, after the necessary biosafety clearances are given.  For this purpose, we should establish without further delay a National Biosafety Authority which inspires public, professional, political and media confidence. We should also promote more public sector research so that there can be inclusiveness in access to technology. Private companies obviously will produce technologies, where the small farmer will have to buy the seeds every year and where the findings are protected by intellectual property rights. There is a very good expertise in our public sector institutions in the fields of molecular biology and genetic engineering and we should derive full benefit from them. There is at present no opposition to medical, industrial and environmental biotechnology as well as the control of technology. Rightly the concerns are around food biotechnology. This is why a Parliament approved Biosafety Regulatory authority has become an urgent need. This is essential for implementing Prime Minister’s suggestion for harnessing the benefits of molecular biology and genetic engineering for agricultural progress.

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