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Alarm over proposal to ban GM trials

Sreelatha Menon & Sanjeeb Mukherjee  |  New Delhi 

A 10-year blanket ban on field trials of genetically modified (termed Bt) crops, proposed by an expert committee set up by the Supreme Court, has set off alarm bells, especially in the cotton sector.

A senior government official said it would be like gifting a 10-year monopoly on Bt cotton to a single company, Monsanto, and clipping the wings of upcoming competitors, such as Bayer, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta, and some public sector companies.

Monsanto has completed its trials and can reap the gains in the coming years, while the other companies are still only at the start of their trials, the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Monsanto on its part, while rejecting the overall contents on the report on the grounds that it (the committee) has exceeded its mandate and its implementation would have serious implication on the future of Indian agriculture, said competition already exists in the Bt cotton field and its first-mover advantage comes from the fact that it had better technologies to offer.

“All public sector works worth hundreds of crores of rupees will go for a toss, that too for somebody who has made an unscientific recommendation. The implementation of the recommendations would have a huge impact on the morale of scientists and Indian farmers,” a Monsanto spokesperson said.

The ban, if accepted by the Supreme Court, which begins the hearing on this on October 29, would also mean a return to the high insecticide consumption trend witnessed till 2001 before Bt cotton came in. While insecticide use growth was 46 per cent in 2001, it went down to 21 per cent in subsequent five years, an official said.

Insecticide manufacturers are all multinational companies, and they were hit badly, with a 60 per cent fall in demand since the advent of Bt cotton, government sources said.

Activist and scientist Suman Sahai dismissed the fear that it would help the monopoly of one company and elimination of others. “We have to ensure our system is in order, and we don’t have to facilitate anyone,” she said.

Association of Biotech-Led Industries-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) in a statement expressed dismay over the contents of the report and said it lacked focus and balanced scientific analysis.

“There are numerous broad and sweeping recommendations regarding GMOs which are not supported by internationally accepted scientific standards already implemented in India and many other parts of the world. Additionally, the report, it seems, selectively relied upon the views of a limited group of scientists to support their recommendations while completely ignoring the views of the vast majority of scientists that do not,” ABLE-AG said. It said the report, if implemented, would drastically slow down the development of biotechnology in the country.

SVR Rao, senior vice-president at Nuziveedu Seeds, said his company had sponsored GM research in cotton, rice and corn. “All that will go waste. This whole position is driven by emotion than reason,” he said.

The Technical Expert Committee was appointed by the SC to advise on whether open field trials should be fully or partially banned. The panel was set up on a petition filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues against the Union government.

The reasons given by the panel for the proposed ban was the need to overhaul the regulatory mechanism and guidelines for companies doing this work (GMOs) to ensure safety of the crops for human health and the environment. It cites conflict of interest in regulatory bodies under the department of biotechnology. It says the latter’s mandate is to promote GMOs and can’t be a good judge for bio-safety.

It also asks for time to ensure that systems are built in that facilitate appointment of qualified scientists equipped to monitor bio-safety, and also introduce long-term toxicity tests on small animals, covering their full life cycle, before allowing further trials. It says specific sites for field trials have to be determined and certified in the country and no other place should be used for these trials. All this, it said, would need time.

A moratorium has been in place for Bt brinjal trials following a decision taken by the then minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, in 2010.

The report echoes the recommendations made recently by a parliamentary standing committee on GM crops, but contradicts the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Council of the Prime Minister, which recently advocated continuation of trials and had even found the regulatory system robust.

The members of the TEC included P S Chauhan, P C Keshavan, P S Ramakrishnan, Imran Siddiqi and B Shivakumar.

First Published: Sat, October 20 2012. 00:16 IST