Even as the debate over safety and essentiality of genetically modified foods continues, Indian research institutes are trying to genetically modify some high-value medicinal herbs that are an integral part of ayurvedic medicine, a recent report of pro-environment group Greenpeace has said.
The report, "Genetic Gamble," said Kerala Agricultural University was trying to genetically modify medicinal herbs Jivanti and Ashwagandha to study changes in their metabolic properties. Similarly, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, also based in Kerala, is conducting studies on metabolic engineering of Brahmi and Creat, the report says.
All these herbs are commonly used in ayurvedic medicines. Scientists associated with these institutions agreed that these programmes were being carried out but said they did not pose any environmental or health hazard.
The research on Brahmi - a plant whose roots, leaves and stalks are known for medicinal properties - is to find ways to improve the presence of bioactive or medicinally important substances in the plant.
The scientists expect to substantially increase the yield of the plants through such interventions. Bhrami is known to cure several neurological, cardiac, cognitive and respiratory disorders. The report says transgenic Brahmi plants have been successfully tested in green-house conditions and will be tested under field conditions after regulatory approvals.
"We have completed the lab-level study to see if the Brahmi plant can produce more medicinally active substances. It is not ready for open field trials yet and we do not have the mandate to do so. Further studies will be conducted only after regulatory approvals," said a Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology scientist.
Kerala Agricultural University scientists said they did not conduct transgenic research, which alters the basic structure of the plant organism. "We are only producing a large number of roots that contain medicinally important products. This is not conventional genetic modification and is meant only for lab-level testing. So there is no question of safety hazards", said R Keshavachandran, project investigator for ashwagandha research in Kerala Agricultural University.
"Given the scarcity of traditional medicine plants, it is desirable to think of better alternatives. But introducing ayurvedic medicines manufactured from GM plants is still at a conceptual level. A lot of debate and discussion should take place before regulatory approvals can be given for such products", said Jacob Titus, former drug controller (Ayurveda) of Kerala.
Not all experts in traditional medicine share the enthusiasm. "Synergy is the key in any traditional herbal medicine. Genetic engineering tries to improve a particular active molecule by altering the plant's taste, action, active principle, therapeutic efficacy, nutritional benefits, pro-biotic activity and a lot more. Altering the components will ruin the transgenic plants' efficacy as well as, through outcrossing and gene transfer, the plants' unique and innumerable curative abilities", said G Sivaraman, member, National Siddha Pharmacopoeia Committee.
Meanwhile, the anti-genetic modification groups feel the move is against the principle of ayurveda and could affect India's plans to take ayurveda global. "Ethical public health requires convincing data on benefits and safety of GM foods and medicinal plants for human health.