While safety must be ensured, we should not succumb to unscientific prejudices against Bt crops," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his address at the recently held 101st Indian Science Congress in Jammu. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, too, misses no opportunity to advocate the need for genetically modified (GM) plants to raise farm production, combat pests, diseases and other stresses that impair crop yield. Yet, the indefinite moratorium imposed on the field trials of GM crops by former environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh in 2010, on the basis of misplaced public perceptions and misinformed anti-GM propaganda, has been allowed to stay. This move, not founded on the basis of any reliable scientific evidence, has held up the release of several genetically enhanced crops that are in various stages of development. Worse, it has severely dented the credibility of the country's biotech regulation system. The existing regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), has been rendered virtually inoperative. To firmly usurp the right of approval of biotech crops, the environment ministry formally notified the change in the GEAC's mandate from an "approval" body to a mere GM products "appraisal" committee.
There are indeed some in-built weaknesses that do not allow the current biotech regulatory regime to effectively enforce its authority. These shortcomings also make it vulnerable to lobbyists' pressures and political interference. A comprehensive analysis of the deficiencies of the biotech regulatory system and the needed corrective measures has been presented in a review paper written by a group of scientists led by Bhagirath Choudhary of the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering of Belgium's Ghent University. Titled "Regulatory options for genetically modified crops in India", this paper has been published in the February 2014 issue of the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
It pinpoints three fundamental flaws in the current biosafety regulatory framework that need to be urgently rectified to ensure indubitable and time-bound approvals of biotech products. Firstly, GM crops have erroneously been listed among the hazardous substances under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, thereby projecting them as inherently harmful. This creates unwarranted misperceptions about these crops and raises misgivings over their safety for health and environment.
Secondly, the rules framed under the environment law are enforced through an administrative order without any legislative sanction. This leaves them open to change at any time. It is, in fact, this weak point that allowed Ramesh to take over GM crop approval authority, overrule the permission granted to Bt brinjal by the GEAC, and put an indefinite pause on field trials of GM crops.
And lastly, there is a glaring dichotomy between the powers of the Centre and states over regulating GM crops and permitting their experimentation or cultivation in open fields. While the regulatory mechanism is under the control of the Union environment ministry, the broad field of agriculture is a state subject. This leads to Centre-state conflicts in decision-making.
With these circumstances, people's trust in the safety of the genetically manipulated crops can only be restored by either thoroughly revamping the current regulatory system or, preferably, replacing it with a new one that is immune to political interventions or external pressures. Besides, the system should be competent and fully authorised to take unbiased and science-based decisions.
According to the review paper, the new or modified regulatory regime must be purposeful, transparent, non-political, efficient, consistent and amenable to smooth transition without disturbing the ongoing activities. It should be able to issue its verdict in a fixed time frame based on criteria that conforms to international practices and obligations. Besides, it should have proven competence to assess risks and benefits of the new GM crops to the satisfaction of various stakeholders.
These objectives can obviously be met by passing the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill that is already pending before the Lok Sabha. However, since even this Bill is not wholly incontrovertible in its current form, its draft may be revised. The opportunity to do so is already there given that the Bill is set to lapse on the expiry of the current Lok Sabha's term in a few months. The new government that assumes power after the forthcoming general elections would hopefully accord due priority to this matter.