Eminent scientists & agriculturists calls on govt to allow BRL1 field trials in Karnataka

Considering the time and investment that go into developing a product or technology and for conducting field trials a science-based neutral approach is required

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New Delhi: Eminent scientists and agriculture experts from Karnataka have asked the the government to allow Biosafety Regulatory Level 1 (BRL 1) field trials of Bt Cotton and Maize in Karnataka. After Bt Cotton in India, since 2002 no other crop (enhanced through biotechnology) has been released in India.
While farmers have been demanding to get hold of such technologies to improve crop productivity and control insect attack, nothing has been approved by the Government so far.
Regulatory field trials are the integral part of research and development process to evaluate the efficacy of any newly developed biotech crop variety. These trials are conducted in compliance with the stringent biosafety regulations stipulated by the Department of Biotechnology, very similar to how clinical trials are done before release of any new drug. One of the compliance’s is to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the State government, where such trials are proposed. Recently, one Company approached the Department of Forests, Ecology and Environment in Karnataka, seeking a NOC to conduct BRL 1 trials.
The Department obtained opinion from the Vice Chancellors and Director of Research of the respective State Agriculture Universities, where these trials shall be conducted. The Department further published an advertisement in a newspaper seeking the public opinion (objections/comments) to conduct these field trials.
As per scientists, public consultation for a research experiment can only be valid and unbiased when the public has a good understanding of the technology, this puts unnecessary burden on public. At the research stage, consultation should be sought from the subject matter experts in order to evaluate potential benefits, understand the science behind it and to specify precautions to be followed during the conduct of research trials. In India, usually, public consultation is sought for the environmental release of an improved crop variety and not for research trials.
As per the present system the NOC has to be sought prior to GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) approval, however, in the absence of GEAC advance approval the States should consider the expert’s advice for approval. Public consultation should be sought before the environmental release to consolidate any concerns they may have and let the developer and experts clarify. In fact, the NOC from States is not a requirement by law. Having a sound scientific basis for evaluating new technologies is an important first step in bringing in progress in Indian agriculture given the vagaries created by climate change.
Dr B V Patil, Former Vice Chancellor and Senior Entomologist, University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur, Karnataka said, “Adoption of new innovative methods/ practices by the farming community will not only increase the food production which feeds the growing population but also make agriculture more sustainable and profitable to the farmers, ultimately fulfilling the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of doubling farmers’ income. One such innovative method is the adoption of successful and proven GM technology. Our farmers have already seen the tremendous benefit of Bt gene which when integrated to cotton plant, totally managed the bollworm incidence particularly, Helicoverpa bollworm and helped them to get higher benefit from the cotton crop. Searching for new ideas i.e Research should continue till we achieve our desired goal/objective. In this regard as a scientist particularly being an Entomologist who worked in the field of integrated pest management on cotton, pulses and oil seeds wherein insect pests damage plays a major role in their production, I recommend to integrate GM technology as one of the technologies in pest management.  Conducting research trials by scientists in this direction should be permitted on top priority and considering the merits and demerits of the technology, later adoption by our farming community can be regulated.”
Dr K K Narayan, Founder Director, Sthayika Seeds Pvt. Ltd,  Director and CEO of Agrigenome Labs, Director, Foundation for Advanced Training in Plant Breeding (ATPBR), said, “Cotton and Maize are important crops for the State and the Country. They are plagued by several pests, the most important ones being bollworms for cotton and now, in recent times, the army worm in Maize.  The Bt technology which has been developed in these crops effectively addresses these pests. Further, weeding is a much needed and highly labour-intensive operation for any crop.  With the increasing dearth of manual labour in the agricultural sector, especially during peak requirement periods, the herbicide tolerance technology incorporated into these crops would not only be a boon to farmers but also reduce drudgery and help in preventing soil erosion as the surface will not be disturbed. Such technologies are in wide use all over the world.  In our own country, insect-protected cotton which has the Bt gene incorporated in it is cultivated in over 95% of the total cotton acreage.”
Dr S A Patil, Former Director IARI and Former VC, University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad said, “Bt cotton has tremendously reduced the pesticide usage on cotton, while otherwise cotton was known as the pesticides loving crop. Oil from Bt cotton is consumed after removing gossypol, day-in and day-out and there is no harm proved through the consumption of cotton oil. There are 11 different GM crops grown successfully throughout the world. 90% of the corn, soybean and cotton growing area in the USA is covered by the GM versions. In the past our scientists from Indian Agriculture Research Institute, Delhi University and University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad had developed high efficacy GM crops, however, none could see the light of the day due to all unscientific reasons. It is the time when India has to think scientifically.”
Dr Patil added further: “Public opinion for a scientific endeavor does not have any meaning, as such opinions should be from the scientific experts who understand the nitty-gritty of a scientific experiment. Unfortunately, it seems that unscientific ways have become the order of the day today in India. Data on cotton production, however, shows the potential of technology where the production of cotton has reached to 400lakh bales from 140 lakh bales due to Bt cotton. India is proud of cotton production, and this was only possible because of the GM cotton. Otherwise, we would have been at around 150-200 lakh bales with the area increase or with little bit of productivity increase. I feel that the government has to act and encourage scientific dialogues with all the policy makers, technology developers and farming community. Decisions for a scientific matter through the public consultation may otherwise push the country many years back.”
Considering the time and investment that go into developing a product or technology and for conducting field trials a science-based neutral approach is required. It is imperative on the government and policy makers to educate the general public on the scientific advances that are being made globally to address the serious issues adversely impacting agricultural productivity. While the regulators have developed a framework based on global standards for evaluating new biotech crops, policy makers will have to enable development and evaluation of technologies in a reliable and time-bound manner.
Technology developers can be motivated to invest in research if such initiatives are visible. If, along every step of the way, the developer has to go through unnecessary hurdles, it would be hard to put money on the table to develop relevant solutions to solve continuously emerging challenges to agriculture. While talks have been around for some time about the government developing an integrated infrastructure to evaluate new biotech solutions, nothing has been put in place as of now. In its absence, ad hoc approaches to the regulatory process can only hurt the nation.
A reliable and predictable regulatory framework is the need of the hour and in its absence, we can expect farmers to desert their profession and look for greener pastures endangering the self-sufficiency, India has managed to develop through diligent initiatives.