The Indian Science Congress currently under way saw scientists hesitate to come out openly in favour of a wholesale introduction of genetically modified food. Eminent agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan summed up the mood when he suggested the government set up a Commission on Genetic Modification to formulate official policy.

ISCA President RS Paroda compared the current fear about GMOs to earlier reservations about hybrids. Gurudev Khush of the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, felt there was much false propaganda from ‘ill-informed’ groups on GMOs, adding that GM soybean and corn are cultivated on 40mha on farmland in Canada, Australia and the US and there is no evidence of any harmful effect on human health.

Khush also endorsed the economic rationale of GM technology, saying that while Europe, with its food self-sufficiency and security, can afford to give GM foods the brush-off, India, with rising population and poverty, needs technology to boost production with less water, less labour and less chemical input. He also cautioned the Congress that the distorted information on Bt cotton, which is under trial in three Indian States, could derail the project. Some 50% of pesticide used in India is on cotton, and Bt cotton could be a solution.

Raju Barwale of Mahyco, a hybrid seed company, who has collaborated with Monsato on the Bt cotton project, rued the slow adoption of transgenic crop due to extensive regulations.

Manju Sharma, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, and a known proponent of GMO, said India has no option but to “experience genomic revolution” under a strict and transparent bio-safety protocol.

By Navroz Havewala, correspondent