World Food Prize laureate Marc Van Montagu criticised on Monday non-governmental organisations for “spreading lies” about scientists in the ongoing debate on the use of genetically-modified crops in agriculture.
An advocate of GM crops and pioneer of GM organisms, Prof Montagu hit out at NGOs during his address at the inauguration of the 14th Bangalore India Bio here.
“So many challenges are around and there is something strange going on,” he said. “Some NGOs have declared a kind of war on society and scientists. They are really telling a lot of lies about science and the damage scientists are doing to society. They just want power and money,” he said.
The use of GM crops has been widely-debated with a section of farmers and activists expressing their angst over the issue. Prof Montagu said genetic modification has been a natural process for thousands of years. “The fundamental science is doing very well. In India and Asia, particularly, we have to learn that the fear NGOs are trying to spread is extreme and we have to say why science can bring solutions,” he said.
Prof Montagu, who is the founder-chairperson of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Ghent, Belgium, shared the 2013 World Food Prize with Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T Fraley of the US “for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in modern agricultural biotechnology that helps farmers grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate”.
Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), questioned the legitimacy of Prof Montagu’s award in the first place.
“Well, it is not surprising for the World Food Prize winner to talk like this as the award is sponsored by agribusiness companies. I don’t know why we think the prize is a big deal. However, the kind of opposition to GMOs that we see in India is not driven by NGOs. We have very credible scientists opposing GMOs and no amount of NGO-bashing will wash away their credibility,” Kavitha said.
Department of Biotechnology secretary K Vijay Raghavan called for relaxation of regulations for conducting clinical trials. “Activists say clinical trials cannot be done unless regulations are met. But one can’t say that trials cannot be done unless all extreme views are satisfied, which is a very dangerous position. The result of that would be, those who are rich would buy all the drugs and others would suffer,” Prof Raghavan said.
Following Supreme Court intervention on clinical trials of drugs developed abroad last October, regulations governing them were made stringent and it became mandatory for companies conducting trials to reveal its contract with the subject to the Drugs Controller General of India. Trial subjects were also required to give consent on an audio-visual recording.
Prof Raghavan said activists “often protest against use of vaccines without evidence of side effects” which he called misplaced activism.
“There is a tendency to apply these kinds of misplaced activism in our context. Thousands of people die of diseases that can be cured with available and newly-developed vaccines,” he said.
“It is very important that voices should echo views based on evidence. If such voices are not outspoken, it will lead to a disaster,” he warned.
Even IT Minister S R Patil expressed concerns over clinical trial restrictions. “You can understand our limitations on the issue because it is an international issue. Also in India, there are legal and ethical dimensions in it. I see an urgent need for consensus among industry, NGOs, government and judiciary,” Patil said.