Public perception key for success of GM technology: ICAR chief

ICAR chief Trilochan Mohapatra says that the government should educate people about the significance of biotechnology in agriculture


A file image of genetically modified mustard plants at ICAR lab. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
A file image of genetically modified mustard plants at ICAR lab. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: The government needs to educate and create public awareness of the benefits of biotechnology in agriculture, Trilochan Mohapatra, secretary in the department of agricultural research and education, told a gathering of industry leaders and scientists on Thursday.

Mohapatra, who is also the director general of Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the apex farm research body in the country, added that at a time when the political leadership is hesitant to take a decision, public perceptions are crucial for the success of scientific work.

Referring to the issue of genetically modified (GM) mustard that was developed by public research institutions but is yet to get regulatory approval, Mohapatra said the government has to take a call now that public research has delivered. However, he added that India needs to improve the quality of bio-safety research.

“But where are our innovations to celebrate? We have nothing in the pipeline after GM mustard,” Mohapatra said while speaking at the event that was organised by the Trust for Advancement of Agricultural Sciences, a Delhi-based agriculture policy think tank.

“Today innovators are in doubt (in India)... (earlier) he was in doubt because of bio-safety, now he is in doubt because of ownership,” said S.R. Rao, adviser to the department of biotechnology under the ministry of science and technology.

Rao was referring to the technology licensing guidelines issued by the agriculture ministry in May that was subsequently withdrawn after protests by biotech companies.

According to the guidelines, now posted as a draft on the ministry’s website inviting comments, for any GM trait commercialized in India, the technology provider cannot charge a royalty that exceeds 10% of the maximum sale price of the seeds, which is fixed by the government every year. Also, the technology provider cannot refuse a licence to any eligible Indian seed company. If delayed by more than a month, the licence will be “deemed to have been obtained”.

“There is ambiguity in the ownership of patents... generations will pass and we will miss out on new technology,” Rao said.

The agriculture ministry had earlier imposed a price control on Bt cotton seeds—the only GM technology commercially approved in India—and also regulated trait or royalty fees that innovators like Monsanto Co. can charge from domestic seed companies for licensing the technology.

Speaking at the conference, Deepak Pental, former vice chancellor of Delhi University and the developer of GM mustard, said that open-source is going to be the key in developing agricultural biotechnology and India is far behind in research when compared to countries like China.

“We are doomed if our public (research) system do not rise to the occasion,” Pental said, adding, “private companies will not be interested to do long-term research to tackle diseases like white rust (in mustard), rice blast or stem rot.”

READ MORE