Cut and run

No one wants to shoulder responsibility for microorganisms that were brought into the country for agriculture trials

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

ARE Indian researchers being taken for a ride? A Japanese method propagated as a surefire way to boost crop production and slash input costs and fertiliser use is now in the midst of a controversy. The experiment, which was cleared by the Union agriculture ministry, is now caught in a bind: no one knows what the microbes are and whether they contain harmful pathogens. Now, in an apparent knee-jerk reaction, the department of biotechnology is formulating a new set of guidelines on field trials of microorganisms.

Last December, the Japan-based International Nature Farming Research Centre (INFRC) introduced in India the "effective microorganism method" (EMM) as a high-tech way to reduce costs by half and simultaneously raise production by about 20 per cent.

Vinay Shankar, additional secretary in the ministry of environment and forests (MEF), says he received samples of these microorganisms from Japan and claims they are naturally occurring. The samples were later distributed to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute in Nagpur, the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, Aligarh Muslim University and the Indian Agriculture Research Institute.

The import of microorganisms, both naturally occurring and genetically engineered, must be routed through the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the MEF. However, this time around, the GEAC seems to have been bypassed. The institutes say they were not aware that the microbes had not been cleared by the GEAC.

INFRC maintains that it is collaborating with the MEF to push the technology in India in a big way. It says that it has ongoing projects in 20 countries, including the US and Thailand. MEF and the agriculture ministry are either tight-lipped or feign ignorance. However, Japanese embassy officials in Delhi say the EMM method has not been tested by Japanese scientific institutions for efficacy and has so far been used only by private farmers.

Meanwhile, K R Dadrwal of the department of microbiology at Haryana Agriculture University in Hissar claims he analysed the microorganisms in 1989 and found they contained nothing to boost crop yield, apart from some growth regulators and low concentrations of nitrate and ammonium salts. The microorganisms were given to him by the then vice chancellor of the university, Harswarup Singh, who got them from Teruo Higa, who is currently director of INFRC.

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