Indian science academies rebuked in Bt brinjal debate

GM brinjal (eggplant) is resistant to some insect pests, unlike non-modified vegetables Copyright: Flickr/mtsofan

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[NEW DELHI] An attempt by India’s science academies to contribute to the heated debate on genetically modified (GM) crops appears to have backfired after the country’s environment minister rejected their controversial report.

The inter-academy report, published last week (24 September), has been swiftly followed by a note of apology from the country’s leading science academy for copying portions of the text from a pro-biotech organisation and for failing to include references.

India’s minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh imposed a moratorium on the cultivation of Bt brinjal (known elsewhere as aubergine, or eggplant) earlier this year, until the public and scientists were convinced that cultivation and consumption were safe. Bt brinjal would have been India’s first GM food crop — the only other approved GM plant in the country is Bt cotton.

Ramesh also commissioned an independent scientific report on GM crops from six of India’s science academies: Indian Academy of Sciences, Indian National Academy of Engineering, Indian National Science Academy, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, National Academy of Medical Sciences and National Academy of Sciences.

Bt brinjal’s safety for human consumption had been established "adequately and beyond reasonable doubt", the report said, recommending its quick release at a limited number of venues.

But India’s anti-GM organisations found that sections of the report were copied from an article by plant geneticist and vocal GM crop supporter P. Ananda Kumar, published in India’s pro-GM department of biotechnology’s Biotech News.

The Coalition for GM Free India criticised the report as "a biased, political position paper by the science academies, rather than a rigorous scientific review that it is supposed to be".

Ramesh has now rejected the report, telling reporters that it did not "appear to be the product of rigorous scientific evaluation".

He told the Times of India: "My idea of referring the GM crops to academics was to get a view of the larger scientific community but not the view of one Ananda Kumar which I knew even before the moratorium was put on Bt brinjal".

But Mamannamama Vijayan, president of the Indian National Science Academy, defended the report, saying that it was the "first attempt to orchestrate several academies on a major policy issue".

Referring to the copied portions of text, he said in a statement that a "slip occurred but that should not lead to inaction".

He said that the report had intentionally omitted references because it was an "attempt … to formulate a set of conclusions and recommendations … in the light of the spoken and written comments of the Fellows, and the documents brought to attention by them".

Raghunath Mashelkar, a former president of the same academy, said that the presence or absence of citations is a "trivial" matter.

"Just as an ‘op-ed’ in a newspaper does not mention the names of experts the author spoke to while forming his or her view, sometimes committees and academy reports reflect a collective expert opinion and do away with citations," he told SciDev.Net.