M. S. Swaminathan

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Under fire for GM crops article, an iconic Indian scientist clarifies his views

An iconic Indian agricultural scientist is distancing himself from a recent editorial he co-authored that is critical of genetically modified (GM) crops, and has sparked furious debate among the nation’s researchers.

Geneticist Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, 93, has been dubbed the father of India’s Green Revolution, which in the 1960s and 1970s delivered new, high-yield crop varieties to the nation’s farmers. He has also held an array of high-profile leadership positions in national and international organizations.

Researchers took notice when, last month, Swaminathan published an editorial in Current Science with Parthasarathy Chenna Kesavan, a researcher at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, which Swaminathan leads. The article questions the sustainability, safety, and regulation of GM crops. It suggests GM cotton, the only GM crop approved for cultivation in India, has failed to help Indian farmers increase yields and incomes, and reduce pesticide use. It questions the safety GM eggplant and mustard varieties, which have been caught in regulatory limbo in India for a decade. And it presents data from an array of studies to back those arguments.

The editorial—which comes as the Indian Supreme Court is considering whether the nation should allow the patenting of GM crops—sparked furious pushback from some Indian scientists. The editorial is “severely flawed” and makes “extraordinary generalizations,” wrote Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, in a letter to Swaminathan. Scientific “results are selectively omitted, selectively represented or misrepresented,” added VijayRaghavan, who is based in New Delhi.

In tweets and blog posts, many researches also expressed bafflement at the involvement of Swaminathan, whose research institute is involved in developing GM crops. Swaminathan had provided ammunition to India’s vociferous critics of GM crops, some researchers wrote on Twitter and private forums.

Swaminathan was taken aback by the ferocity of the dissent and what he views as personal attacks not grounded in evidence, he tells ScienceInsider. “In science, I express a view, you contradict me, I accept both,” he says. “I don’t say: ‘You are bad, I’m good.’”

His views of GM crops are more nuanced than the editorial suggests, Swaminathan says. He believes GM crops are appropriate for some uses, but perhaps not others. For example, creating GM crops able to resist drought or high heat could be useful for dealing with threats like climate change, he says. But engineering crops to resist insects and fungi might be less promising over the long term, he suggests, especially because the crops can lose resistance as the pests evolve.

He noted, for example, that the single strain of GM cotton approved in India, which carries a bacterial gene that allows it to resist pests, “has done very well in some places, other places there is difficulty with a new strain [of pest].” In contrast, abiotic stresses, such as drought or floods, can’t develop resistance. “If you develop a variety tolerant to sea water, the resistance will be more longstanding.”

Swaminathan said his contribution to the editorial was limited to the first and last paragraphs; Kesavan, who he calls a “very distinguished scientist,” wrote the rest. (Kesavan could not be reached for comment.) And he says his co-authorship should not be taken as a full endorsement of Kesavan’s views. “The editorial expresses a viewpoint predominantly of my colleague, Keshavan,” he says. “But since I’m cited as co-author, I take author responsibility.”

The message he wants readers to focus on, Swaminathan says, is that scientists should think critically about new technologies and how their deployment will affect users, such as small farmers. “I’ve been clear in my views. Wherever you get an opportunity to bring a new genetic combination [to a crop], you should utilize it,” he says, but “the bottom line is the welfare of the farmers and the welfare of the consumers.” And people should not “worship a technology,” he adds. “Worship the purpose for which the technology is to be used and the cause for which it is developed.”