Thursday, September 30, 2010

Plagiarism plagues India's genetically modified crops by Priya Shetty

The finding that parts of an interacademy report on GM crops were plagiarized could spell the end of Bt brinjal.Ajay Verma/REUTERS/Corbis
Published online 29 September 2010 | Nature |

Transgenic aubergine still banned after encouraging report is discredited.

Students hold a mock funeral procession against Bt (Bacillus thuringenesis) brinjal or genetically modified brinjal (a type of eggplant) crop in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh January 28, 2010The finding that parts of an interacademy report on GM crops were plagiarized could spell the end of Bt brinjal.Ajay Verma/REUTERS/Corbis

India's moratorium on genetically modified (GM) food crops is unlikely to be lifted after it emerged that key sections from a landmark report by six Indian science academies, which recommended that the country resume planting of GM food crops, had been plagiarized from an article in favour of such crops.

The environment ministry this week rejected the academies' report. The anti-GM-crops lobby has seized on the controversy, and Indian scientists fear that the episode has undermined the country's international scientific reputation.

Nandula Raghuram of the Society for Scientific Values, an ethics watchdog based in Delhi, says that what should have been a rigorous assessment by India's top scientific institutions has ended up as the mouthpiece of Ananda Kumar, a plant scientist who is director of the National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology and a known proponent of GM crops.

The plagiarism "reflects the larger tragedy of Indian academies", says Raghuram, a molecular biologist at Indraprastha University in Delhi. The academies have "a total lack of social sensitivity, objectivity and public honesty", he says.

Devinder Sharma, chairman of the Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, a group of scientists that is against GM crops, calls the entire report "a cut and paste exercise".

If the six top national academies have to go by what just one scientist says, "it clearly indicates how hollow and useless the science academies are," says Sharma. "Where is the scientific rigour that is expected from such 'distinguished' bodies?"

A statement signed on Tuesday by Mamannamama Vijayan, the president of the Indian National Science Academy — which coordinated the report — focused solely on the "inappropriateness" of copying text without citations, ignoring any accusations of a lack of scientific rigour. Vijayan told Nature that he is "very agitated that such a thing happened", but added that although the report will be reviewed, "it is very unlikely that the recommendations will change".


In October 2009, India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave the go-ahead to commercial planting of Bt brinjal, a variety of aubergine modified to produce a protein from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium that is toxic to insect pests. But this February, after an outcry from farmers and activists, environment minister Jairam Ramesh put a moratorium on planting the vegetable, pending the interacademy assessment of its safety to human health and the environment.

“Where is the scientific rigour that is expected from such 'distinguished' bodies?”

The academies' report was released on 24 September. But, on the following day, the advocacy group Coalition for GM Free India pointed out that it contained text copied verbatim from two 2009 documents: Bt Brinjal: A Pioneering Push, written by Kumar for the magazine Biotech News, and The Development and Regulation of Bt Brinjal in India by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a lobby group based in Ithaca, New York, and funded by biotechnology corporation Monsanto, headquartered in St Louis, Missouri. Kumar had also contributed to this second report.

The interacademy report and the Biotech News article both contain the lines: "Bt brinjal ... has been subjected to a rigorous biosafety regulatory process encompassing all aspects of toxicity, allergenicity, environmental safety, socio-economic assessment etc."

Kumar told Nature that the plagiarism was unintentional, and that he did not feel he had to reword statements of fact before submitting them for inclusion in the academies' report. Indian scientists contacted by Nature say that because Kumar contributed to all three reports, the plagiarism is more a matter of shoddy writing and lack of citation than of serious misconduct.

Govindarajan Padmanaban, a biochemist and former director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, agrees. He says that the plagiarism is an "indiscretion rather than any deliberate misrepresentation of facts".

Starting again

Nevertheless, questions remain about the rigour of the interacademy report. Kumar says that the report's conclusion that Bt brinjal is safe is based largely on data analysed by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee last year — suggesting that a report commissioned to supplement the committee's scientific guidance is actually based on the committee's recommendations.


Indeed, Ramesh seemed frustrated more that the report offered nothing new than by suggestions of misconduct. "My idea of referring the GM crops to academics was to get a view of the larger scientific community but not the view of one Ananda Kumar which I knew even before the moratorium was put on Bt brinjal," he told the Times of India this week.

India needs "transparent, scientific methods of assessing risks and benefits of GM crops", says Monkombu Swaminathan, an agricultural scientist often referred to as the father of India's green revolution for his role in developing high-yield varieties of wheat. He calls for "a regulatory authority that inspires public, political and media confidence".

Meanwhile, Sharma says that any confidence in the academies' report has evaporated. "This fake report should be shelved and the chiefs of the six top national academies sacked," he says.

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