India-born Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan said that the government and agricultural research institutions in India could focus on developing genetically modified (GM) crops to address the problem of food security caused by burgeoning population and impact of climate change on agriculture. 

He said people are generally opposed to GM crops because many feel these crops are produced by big multinational corporations and that leads to some kind of monopolistic practice. He added that there is no reason why government-run agriculture institutes in India cannot create their own varieties of GM crops for use in India. 

The Nobel laureate was speaking at the launch of the Tamil translation of his book ‘Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome’ at the Asian College of Journalism on Friday. 

‘Many possibilities’

Noting that he is generally in favour of genetic engineering, Ramakrishnan said it is a good idea because one can modify the crops to make them more drought-resistant or pest-tolerant, so the usage of pesticides or fertilisers can be minimised.  “You can even add nutritional values to the crops so the rice or millet or wheat becomes more nutritious with different composition. There are many possibilities for GM crops and it’s very beneficial.” 

Responding to a question by N Ram, Director, The Hindu Publishing Group, on how Indian science has progressed since 1971 when Ramakrishnan left the country, the Nobel laureate said, the progress of Indian science has been held back by numerous factors including lack of adequate funding, bureaucratic hurdles and shifting of research from State universities to Central institutions.

Ramakrishnan said, prior to Independence, India produced world class scientists like CV Raman, JC Bose, SN Bose, Meghnad Saha and Homi Bhabha. The trend persisted for a while after Independence because of Jawaharlal Nehru, whose interest in science led to funding and creation of several science institutions. 

He said science also wilted in State universities such as University of Madras, Bombay and Baroda and migrated to Central institutions. Therefore, a majority of students were isolated from where the main research happened. Ramakrishnan highlighted the efforts of renowned Indian scientist CNR Rao in arguing for more funding for science research, better facilities and equipment. 

Ramakrishnan said China has made tremendous investments on science and research and the results have actually began to show up. “You can see world class journals published by Chinese scientists and you don’t see that so much from India. Here, there are only a few pockets of excellence but not widespread.”

Bureaucratic hurdles

He further said bureaucratic hurdles are a major drawback in the Indian system. It takes a long time to get anything approved and there are  all sorts of restrictions on how and where the money can be used. “Sometimes money is given for big fancy equipment but no money is allotted to maintain that,” he added. 

“Indian scientists are working under handicap,” Ramakrishnan said, adding, it requires a real commitment from the government and society for science to progress.