From the Viewsroom

Storm in a scientific teacup

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 24, 2018

MS Swaminathan, Agricultural scientist. (File Photo)   -  The Hindu

Lessons from the flutter surrounding a ‘flawed’ essay on GMO

Iconic agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan’s disavowal of his association with an article in the November 25 edition of Current Science, a peer-reviewed journal, has brought a closure to an unseemly controversy. The article, ‘Modern Technologies for Sustainable Food and Nutrition Security’, was co-authored by Swaminathan and geneticist and radiation scientist PC Kesavan. It was highly critical of genetically modified (GM) crops and raised questions about the wisdom of harnessing genetic engineering technology. Much of the controversy was centred around the fact that Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution in India, which harnessed agricultural biotechnology in the cause of ending mass starvation, was sounding — in the winter of his accomplished life — like a shrill anti-GMO activist with a disregard for scientific facts. The article came in for spirited criticism from the scientific community, including from Principal Scientific Adviser K VijayRaghavan, who termed it “deeply flawed”.

In a statement, a distressed Swaminathan said that given his “extremely limited role” in authoring the paper, Kesavan should have been acknowledged as the sole author. He further reiterated his “total commitment and support to modern technologies, including genetic modification and gene editing”. However, he gave expression to his belief that genetic engineering was perhaps unsuitable for crops in certain situations: that nuance had been strikingly missing in the borderline-polemical article, which was eventually taken down.

Beyond the flutter focussed on Swaminathan’s personality, the issue highlights the perils of agenda-driven activism in the cloak of scientific rigour. Even if one acknowledges that the last word hasn’t been said on the sustainability of GM crops and foods, even a reasoned case for opposing it is ill-served if accomplished scientists dilute their fidelity to scientific facts. Just as the issue of climate change has the capacity to polarise positions and cloud the scientific landscape, the science of genetic engineering is on very contentious territory. Given the regulatory approvals pending for GM eggplant and mustard varieties, the episode enhances the case for heightened vigilance in the cause of fact-based policy-making.

Associate Editor

Published on December 23, 2018

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