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Time to reap the biotechnology harvest

It is common sense that in sectors that witness rapid advancement such as technology, the regulatory process and its implementation must constantly evolve to keep pace with changing times. CD Mayee writes.

india Updated: Aug 08, 2013 00:28 IST

It is common sense that in sectors that witness rapid advancement such as technology, the regulatory process and its implementation must constantly evolve to keep pace with changing times.

Biotechnology is one such area. The past decades have seen ground-breaking research in this field that has transformed agriculture in much of the world.

India has had to play catch up, and despite having one of the most robust regulatory frameworks, has lagged in the introduction and release of technology.

It is, therefore, perplexing that the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) recommended that till the time a body of scientists of sufficient knowledge, and administrators of sufficient calibre and purpose is created, research into biotechnology in the country should be halted.

By that argument, we should do away with the police till we reform the force and god forbid, the courts should stop functioning till judicial reform is accomplished.

The one crop where approvals have been granted has shown the transformational effect. Bt Cotton has turned India from a cotton importing country to the world’s second largest producer and exporter of the fibre.

Speaking at the foundation day ceremony of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research recently, President Pranab Mukherjee reiterated that development and introduction of genetically modified crops has the potential to revolutionise agriculture.

Last year, the prime minister’s Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) too suggested same thing. Some of the recommendations ring similar to the TEC’s: a reform of the regulatory setup and robust procedures.

But what makes the SAC’s recommendations visionary is the reiteration that India should doggedly pursue research in agricultural biotechnology. The SAC goes on to say that public sector institutions and universities must take the lead in this endeavour, pointing out that the current debate is demoralising, and isolates scientists who are doing sterling research.

In the coming decades, India is going to grapple with an increasing population, shrinking arable land, erratic weather and a shortage of water. Only biotechnology has an answer to these issues.

Seeds that need less water, that utilise nutrients efficiently, crops that protect themselves from pests, are all qualities that we will urgently need if we are to clothe and feed our citizens in the decades to come.

There are many universities and public sector organisations that are conducting research into biotechnology. Crores of rupees are spent on this research.

The country’s foremost scientists have spent years gaining expertise in this area. And all of this will go to waste if the TEC’s recommendations are implemented.

Our brightest brains will seek greener pastures, the infrastructure we have built will collapse, and the loser will be farmers, and us, the people of India.

It was better seeds, better technology that brought about the green revolution. And biotechnology is the logical next step. For Indian agriculture to take a leap forward, it will need a technological boost.

Genetically modified seeds have been in use around the world for decades, without any harmful effects being found. Moreover, farmers know what is good for them. It is unfair to deny them the choice of technology.

CD Mayee is former co–chairman, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)

The views expressed by the author are personal